Fair or not, there are tennis fans out there who expect to see the Rafael Nadal of old when he makes his return in this week's Chile Open. But those in the know won't be watching how the former champ finishes in the draw—they'll simply want to see how he looks.
When last we saw Rafael Nadal grace a tennis court, he looked anything but dominant. In one of the biggest upsets the sport of tennis has ever seen, he lost in the second round of Wimbledon to world No. 100 Lukas Rosol.
But after the event we learned of a partially torn patella tendon that, as it transpired, would eventually cost him 222 days of competition. Each of his big-four rivals—Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—has hoisted a Grand Slam trophy in his absence, leading many tennis fans to wonder if Nadal and his dubious knee will ever be able to re-catch them.
In one respect, seeing Nadal lose his comeback tournament would be a mild disappointment. Were he donning the clay courts of Vina del Mar this time last year, we would have demanded it. Aside from being on his favorite surface, Nadal only has one member of the ATP top-15 (No. 15 Juan Monaco), two members of the ATP top-30 (Monaco and No. 26 Jeremy Chardy), and three members of the ATP top-49 (Monaco, Chardy and No. 45 Pablo Andujar) to contend with.
But Nadal isn't donning the courts of Vina del Mar in 2012; he's donning them in 2013. He's donning them with the context of the past 222 days behind him. And he's donning them in a condition where winning isn't the only way to leave Chile "successful."
Instead of focusing on whether or not Nadal hoists a trophy, we should focus on how he handles his body. His power might be diminished, but does he still have a semblance of pop? Does he cut with and plant with confidence, or trepidation?
That's a sentiment Sports Illustrated's Jon Wertheim agreed with, saying:
The actual results won't much matter, as any scenario can be easily dismissed. If he wins the event, great. But he's tanned and rested and the King of Clay; we expect him to win a low-level event that he never deigned to play in the past.
If he loses, well, he just suffers from some ring rust. No big deal. What will be more interesting: Where is Nadal physically? Where is he metaphysically?
The timing of Nadal's return suggests that he, too, is concerned less with results and more with easing his way back into competition. Barely one week removed from the Australian Open Final, this gives Nadal the most (feasible) time to play competitive matches before another Grand Slam. The next major tournament, the French Open—Rafa's own, personal domain—doesn't kick off until May 26.
By the time Roland Garros rolls around, Nadal will, hopefully, be counted on to once again win competitive matches. But for now, even he admits that he isn't (via ESPN.co.uk):
"I have to take it slowly and be humble to know that things won't be as good as they were before my injury," said Nadal ...
"Results are the least important thing right now ... If my knee doesn't hurt, I have no fear. I've had had more serious injuries in the past and I got stronger after them."
That's not just a preemptive defense mechanism. It's not an excuse to deflect blame should he lose a match in Chile this or next week.
It's an admirable piece of candor that we would all do well to agree with.
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