Rafael Nadal, current world number four and Spanish number one, was recently voted by the Spanish edition of Vanity Fair as their 'Person of the Year' 2012. The Spaniard is, of course, certainly worthy of winning and being in contention for such prizes, but dare I say that this one award is most definitely not for his tennis accomplishments?
Nadal has, of course, won the French Open this year, two Masters 1000 titles and ended his seven-match losing streak to Novak Djokovic (defeating Djokovic in all three finals), however this season has been at best a 'good' season by his standards.
Having not played since his shock second round loss at Wimbledon because of injury, Nadal's 2012 season has been much shorter than any other season in his nearly decade old professional career. And the question on everyone's lips is not so much when or if he will come back, but how.
Would it be similar to the swashbuckling return of 2010 that saw him win the three consecutive Grand Slam titles? Or a repeat of the lows of late 2009 where he lost 2, 2 and 2 in the semifinal of the US Open to Juan Martin Del Potro and didn't make it past the round-robin stage of the World Tour Finals?
We can't expect Nadal to just return and reclaim the top spot in the Big Four. We also can't expect Djokovic, Andy Murray or even Roger Federer to cede ground to him. It's been nearly three months since he disappeared from the spotlight and the state of play has changed quite a bit.
Murray is a better player and will take some knocking down from the No. 3 spot. Djokovic's belief in his body far exceeds Nadal's, which makes reaching the number two spot considerably harder (if he does get to number three). And Federer is, well, Federer—able to stay relevant when everyone rules him out.
This, of course, skirts over the fact that with every passing injury the likes of Berdych, Tsonga, Del Potro and whoever else that lurks in the shadows are more likely to beat Nadal now and in the future more than ever before.
What is the most realistic best-case scenario for Nadal for the rest of 2012? What does the future hold?