Rafael Nadal's return to professional men's singles tennis on Wednesday feels a lot like a one-man army invasion bearing down on a barricaded fortress. That is to say, if inside that fortress are Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray, masters of this breached province.
As the top three ranked men in the world prepare to assess the damage around their stronghold, the question they're all thinking is obvious: Is the world No. 5 Nadal armed with heavy artillery or dual glow-in-the-dark water pistols?
If it were me, I wouldn't take my chances, and I'd warmly accept Rafa back into the "fortress of the four."
Nadal has shown a lot in the last two weeks to the media, at least by his standards. To many analysts, he might still appear to be unable to compete at the highest of levels after a seven-month hiatus from tennis due to a left-knee injury. That may be so, for the short term, as the Spaniard's body adjusts to regular match play again, and questions will loom about his career chances on harder court surfaces for a long time to come.
But don't be fooled: After the hints we've seen from him and his camp recently, whether purposeful or without intent, when Rafa comes back to the big time at the ATP 250 VTR Open in Chile this week, he will still be the king of clay.
"Great Scott!" That is way too much spin for one man.
Babolat, the company that makes Nadal's racket, revealed that Rafa would be using a new stick for the first time since he was 12 years old. The new model is supposed to provide Nadal with—brace yourselves—more topspin.
In immediate reasoning, one might think that a new racket at this stage of 26-year-old (he'll turn 27 in June) Nadal's career would be foolish, and in a full-swing attempt to make an elite comeback no less. But this might not be the case at all.
Rather, Nadal's focus should be more on his spin, power and control and less on his movement around the court. After all, tennis is often times about keeping your strengths sharp, particularly in recovery from injury—because your opponents will always work to exploit your weaknesses, you'll be forever forced to polish shortcomings in your game anyway, regardless of what you do to hone them off the court.
Rotations per minute of the tennis ball has always been Rafa's greatest physical tool to break his opponents down, and its effect on a clay court is entirely brutal (see Nadal's head-to-head versus Federer, and the rest of the planet, on clay). Adding firepower to the left-hander's mighty forehand should only ensure better point dictation and ultimately greater energy conservation.
For all we know, depending on where his knees truly get marked up on the pain chart following matches early in his comeback, the tennis world could consequently see a more complete Rafael Nadal when all is said and done.
The Br'er Rabbit and His Briar Patch
If you know the folk story of the resourceful little hare, then this needs no further explanation. In summary, the rabbit is able to escape a dangerous predicament by convincing his captor that he doesn't want to be thrown into the briar patch, which happens to secretly be his home.
Rafael Nadal is that rabbit. (Wait, Rafa fans, it's not what you think!) But not because he uses guile or cunning to manipulate his rivals into letting him off the hook on the court—quite the contrary, Rafa doesn't want to be let off the hook and will strive to succeed in every point at every cost, even at his body's expense.
Instead, Nadal is the rabbit because of the comments made off the crimson clay by him and his camp.
Throughout Nadal's career, his coach and uncle Toni Nadal and the rest of his traveling team have frequently downplayed Rafa's title chances, particularly at tournaments where he's hardly (or never) lost. Though Rafa hasn't played professional tennis there since 2005, the upcoming stretch of three tournaments in South and North America (Chile, Brazil, and finally rounding out his comeback in Acapulco, Mexico) is no exception to that talk (via Fox News).
For a man who is 254-19—a stunning and all-too ridiculous winning percentage of 93 percent—on all clay courts over the span of his whole career, any betting odds by which he isn't the favorite are a bit farfetched, with or without time away from the game.
Are Nadal and his camp wrong to downplay his chances in his South American comeback tour?
The good news for Rafa fans? That talk has often been followed by spectacular play and results from the Spaniard.
If you're feeling antsy about Nadal's return, take a load off: Remember back to his two-and-a-half-month break from the tour at the start of the 2010 season, also because of his knees. Upon coming back to the tour, he made two semifinals at hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments. But before hitting the clay season, there was enormous doubt in the Nadal camp, with worry that his knees and body were not yet ready for the grind.
Rafa would go on the winning streak of his life on the golden turf that he has rightfully claimed to be his own: He would win all three of the clay-court Masters 1000 events and yet another Roland Garros victory, without dropping a set, a feat never accomplished before in tennis history.
To round off the season, he would also pick up the Wimbledon and U.S. Open trophies for his most successful Grand Slam season ever.
Now that's domination.
Did You Miss Me?
Though his time away from tennis has clearly been much longer in this instance, and we can assume that his injury woes are certainly worse than before, this move is an intelligent step for Nadal.
The three tournaments he is playing in Latin America are all a tier below the level he usually plays (ATP 250 versus mostly Masters 1000 events and Grand Slams), at which he remains authoritative while healthy regardless of who stands across the net.
Nadal will be playing both singles and doubles when he takes to the court at the VTR Open in Chile this week, another move that suggests that he might not be feeling too many thwarting aches in his injury-prone joints as he warms up for the venue.
Here he'll be matching up in the singles against players without the mechanisms to defeat him.
Nadal's results in the doubles—partnering with World No. 12 Juan Monaco for his first match back to the tour on Tuesday—shouldn't matter, as it won't tell us too much about the state of his game.
But Rafa will command and overpower the singles field beginning on Wednesday. Nadal has long been one of the best in the business during his career at constant adaptation and improvement of his game in order to stay one step ahead of the field (think of that sole crown in New York at the 2010 U.S. Open, where he pumped up his service speed by 5-10 mph to add yet another weapon to his arsenal), but he won't need too much of that early on.
That is instead a skill that will benefit him as the coming weeks pass and the competition gets bigger and badder—assuming he plans on working his way into proper form for the springtime Masters 1000 events.
Long story short, don't be surprised if Nadal takes the cake at each Latin American tournament with title runs.
All of this comeback talk will make its eventual apex at Roland Garros, after Nadal will have had months worth of matches played, and the guaranteed hype will ensue, whereby Nadal and his camp will make light of his chances once more following his seven-month road to recovery. Nadal fans, pay close attention: The more casual they appear, the more intense he'll play.
But "Rafanatics" won't burden themselves with concern when that time comes, and neither will any other real tennis enthusiast or fan, because a return of the king of clay should be cause for celebration.
And, above all, it will be cause for relief that an undeniable great is returning to the Mount Olympus of tennis.