Rafael Nadal will resume his tennis career at the VTR Open in Chile, South America. More than seven months have passed since his second-round Wimbledon loss to Lukas Rosol. He has subsequently been absent at the London Olympics, the U.S. Open and the 2013 Australian Open.
Most of the speculation and concern about Nadal is the status of his injured left knee. His comeback is tennis’ biggest story heading toward the year's second Grand Slam tournament in France. Nadal's health and playing condition will in large part help determine the balance of power at the top of the ATP tour.
On January 30, Nadal assessed his knee in comments through The Associated Press (via Yahoo Sports), saying, ''sometimes it still hurts ... but I have to start sooner or later.''
Two days later, Nadal’s optimism seemed higher. Per the AP (via Yahoo Sports!), he said, ''My knee is much better, and this is the most important thing now because there's no risk of a big injury.”
He has been practicing with the knee wrapped in a white bandage, according to the AP (via FOX Sports).
This will be the fourth comeback for Nadal following significant injury, but it figures to be his career’s greatest challenge. How will this return compare and contrast to his previous history?
Career Crises 2004-2006
Nadal gave a glimpse of the highs and lows to his career even as he made his presence known on the ATP tour. His first Grand Slam title was a win at the 2005 French Open, including a semifinal victory over world No. 1 Roger Federer.
It was a personal triumph for his fitness as well. Nadal had previously missed almost the entirety of the 2004 clay-court season with a stress fracture in his left ankle.
In October 2005, Nadal won the Madrid Masters tournament, but faced another career crisis. According to his autobiography Rafa, written with John Carlin, Nadal was diagnosed with a rare congenital defect in the tarsal scaphoid bone in his left foot.
He missed four months of play and was finally cleared to resume his career by adjusting to special shoes that would minimize the stress to this weakness. He celebrated his return by winning the hard courts 2006 Dubai Open against Roger Federer.
This successful comeback showed that Nadal could return from a long layoff and play at his top level. He stormed through the clay-court season and won his second French Open title.
Nadal has had to pace much of his career with less training and conditioning than he would like, according to his autobiography. But while Nadal is no stranger to bouncing back to top-level tennis, his 19-year-old body had less mileage and probably greater healing capacity than his current 26-year-old body.
Another Blip in 2009
I have been playing with pain on my knees for some months now and I simply can't go on like this. The pain was limiting certain movements in my body, which affected me mentally as well.
Nadal subsequently skipped Wimbledon and did not return until August. He made the semifinals in September’s U.S. Open before getting blasted by eventual champion Juan Martin del Potro.
By his own admission, Nadal needs to feel mentally confident with his physical condition. This will be one of the supreme questions Nadal will need to overcome during the next few months if he is to add to his treasury as the King of Clay.
South American Tour 2013
Nadal is set for tournaments in Chile, Brazil and Mexico. It’s possible his first few matches could show his dominating form. However, it's a less competitive field topped only by Nadal, world No. 12 Juan Monaco, world No. 25 Jeremy Chardy and respected ATP veteran Tommy Robredo.
Most important, it will take time for Nadal to test his knee and see if it holds up through the grind of scampering play, multiple matches and recovery. CNN.com reported Nadal's outlook:
I hope the tournament will help me to get the feeling I need to add week after week after a long period without competition ... results are the least important thing right now.
Athletes who return from injury have to overcome both physical and mental fears about their ailment. For example, distance runners who return from knee injuries usually feel initial tenderness and varying degrees of pain simply resuming training. At times, it can be several weeks or months before the effects of healing have completed its cycle.
Nadal is no stranger to understanding symptoms and ailments to his knees. In the past, he has had regular pain-killing injections to help him play through his problems. These will continue to be considerations as his medical team weighs his healing progress and condition.
The next few months will also take mental resilience for Nadal. There will be pain and setbacks amid the possible triumphs. There may be self-doubt and questioning, especially if he and his team feel he is behind schedule. Nadal is aware it will take patience and optimism, as he told CNN:
This is the injury that has sidelined me the longest so maybe it will take me a bit longer to get back my confidence, the good feeling on court, but if my knee doesn't hurt I don't see why I couldn't get back my movements and game style.
Tennis fans and media hope for immediate information about Nadal’s questionable future, but the answers will not come all at once. They will be revealed one match at a time.
Ideally, the King of Clay wants to be fit and healthy to win his ninth consecutive Monte Carlo Masters tournament in April. Europe’s red clay has long been his domain, and Nadal does not want to leave an opening for his adversaries.
Ultimately, Nadal hopes to hold up an eighth French Open trophy. The long road from Chile to Paris is just getting started.