Rafael Nadal has been on the shelf for the last seven months, but with his knee finally in playing shape, he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
Nadal made his return to the courts on Tuesday in Rafa-like fashion, winning his doubles match at the VTR Open (alongside Juan Monaco) 6-3, 6-2 (via ESPN). While he played as many expected he would, he’ll test his knee out in singles play on Wednesday against Frederico Delbonis, which should be a true indication of how far he has progressed in his recovery.
As long as Nadal doesn’t further aggravate his ailing knee, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a force to be reckoned with at the French Open toward the end of May.
The French Open will feature clay playing surfaces and an opportunity for Nadal to springboard back into the tennis world with a big win. He’s a clay court wizard, and the VTR Open should give him a clear indication of how well his knee responds to the surface.
According to an Associated Press report, Nadal’s coach knows he may be dealing with the nagging injury for some time, but he feels that Rafa is ready to give it a go:
“The knee is much better, but they've told us he will feel some discomfort and lack of mobility until the end of the month. But it's definitely getting better.”
Even if the knee problems persist through the end of the month, Nadal will have more than two months to rest and recover before the French Open. And as he pointed out in another AP report, preparing for the tournament may include playing in smaller tournaments less frequently in the meantime:
My knee is much better, and this is the most important thing now because there's no risk of a big injury. But it's still bothering me, which will keep me from playing all the time, which I would like to do. You have to start somewhere. I think this is the right moment and the right place.
While it’s logical to be skeptical about Nadal’s potential to dominate the French Open this year—a tournament he has won seven times—it’s hard to believe he will not have his knee back to full strength by the time play begins. After seven months off the court, it’s unlikely he would risk a setback in the VTR Open by playing before his knee was ready for the strain.
Playing and winning are two separate things, but unless something happens to derail his comeback, Nadal will be ready to go for the French Open.
With the field as strong as ever, getting in healthy playing shape will undoubtedly be his focus for the next few months. The world’s current No. 5 player has quite a bit of ground to make up in pursuit of Novak Djokovic, who won his third-straight Australian Open title last month.
With a 26-year-old body that has fewer miles on it than many other competitors—and after taking so much time off to rehab—Rafa will rebound in a big way on the clay courts of Roland Garros in May. This week will determine how far Nadal still has to go, but as long as he can remain on the court and avoid a setback, he’ll be primed to make a run at another French Open title.
If he can care for his knee and regain his playing form, there’s very little else to worry about. To take nothing away from Djokovic or the other top players in the field, Rafa is simply dominant on clay surfaces. He’s won 93 percent of his matches on the surface at this point is his career, and should he fully recover in time for the French Open, he’ll almost certainly add to his impressive resume at Roland Garros in May.