Rafael Nadal’s comeback hit a snag in a 7-6, 6-7, 4-6 defeat to Horacio Zeballos at the VTR Open in Chile.
Though the VTR Open was a small clay-court tournament without the stiff competition of his tennis rivals, it provided four singles matches for Nadal to test his conditioning, left knee and mentality. It also provided a momentary glimpse to evaluate his game and consider his prospects for the near future.
Tennis fans and media will continue to need more patience in observing Nadal. He was unable to come back and get four wins, and it’s clear Nadal is not in championship form. There are more hurdles to jump before anyone can reasonably call him the French Open favorite.
The following will grade Nadal’s performances, and provide technical clues about his tennis. It will also examine the improvements he must make if he is to defend his French Open title.
Nadal is like Thor, the God of Thunder, who depends most of all on his big hammering forehand. He must whip arcing topspin to jump high off the clay with its ferocious bite. He must chew up his opponents' form and timing.
So far, the past week showed that this stroke, most of all, is closest to his past form. The topspin still whirs and bounces, though his depth is inconsistent. He is also aggressive with his forehand and was able to hit through his opponents given the chance. He has demonstrated his usual bludgeoning strength.
When Nadal plays at his absolute best, he hits his backhand with the kind of trust and confidence of a powerful sidekick. He can create unbelievable angles, and it allows for better positioning during rallies than opening up too much court to hit more forehands.
Right now, Nadal's backhand is much more defensive, rusty and unsure. In the Jeremy Chardy semifinal match, he often was dipping down late, lunging and stabbing at far-reaching tennis balls. He was late setting up his form, as if reacting on grass.
Right now, his backhand will not hold up against top 10 players, let alone take the keys to the Batmobile and save the city. He will need to attack more with this side to recapture his timing and confidence. It will come.
For all of the Nadal speculations about his confidence the past week, there is no need to worry about his aggressive mentality as more matches occur. Superheroes will always have their past heroics to give them a vision of their actions. Nadal's spirit will not back away from anyone.
He knows he must take the initiative early in each point to take the offensive. Some of this may be the realization that his backhand and defense are not in top form. He appears to be looking to finish points off even quicker than usual on the red clay, though his sub-par opponents have been easier targets.
It's also likely that Djokovic's Australian Open finals performance may foreshadow the greater attack mindset and urgency needed to win Grand Slams in 2013. Nadal knows that too much conservative play from the baseline will not be enough to win majors.
Young Rafa Nadal, circa 2005-2008, used to play a brand of ferocious terrier tennis. He was able to track down the speediest of balls and leap corner to corner to send back explosive attacks. But it's clear now that Nadal is no longer The Flash.
By 2010, Nadal had matured with his offensive attack and peaked with his serving, and he was still a grade A retriever. He still had the speed and legs to stymie his opponents' attacks.
Last week, retrieving skills were not much of a factor against inferior opponents. But there were times when Nadal was stretched out too much to keep the ball in play or send back a purposeful shot. He lunged and stabbed more at balls in the corner, simply because his footwork was sluggish.
In the second set and sixth game of the Jeremy Chardy semifinal match, Nadal dropped three points for 0-40, because Chardy only needed one moment at initiative and sent Nadal reeling for defense. Fortunately for Nadal, Chardy plunked away a few opportunities with some erratic play as if he was just hoping to hold on to his break opportunities.
On a semi-related note, Nadal was also ineffective breaking serve against Horacio Zeballos in the first two sets at the VTR Open. Reaction time or seeing the ball should not be this much of an issue in humid, red-clay conditions.
It's to be expected that Nadal's footwork is slower and his timing a bit rusty. This is nothing to be alarmed at. More matches and increased conditioning will turn this around.
Nadal is obviously at his best on clay, but especially the way he locks in with his mind. He has an extra level of intensity when staring at an opponent, pumping his fist or tapping his foot at the changeover seat, and possesses a kind of Ironman resistance when it comes to friendly comportment on the tennis court.
Right now he still does not have that kind of dominant mentality against third-tier talent. It’s good practice, because he will need this against his nemeses. He may not be back physically, but he looks like he will do anything to get there. His snarl is still submerged.
Soon Nadal will find more competitive matches, and it will be interesting to see if his edgy, sometimes abrasiveness is still restrained.
With impending adversity, he will seek to impose his will. Old habits die hard. Still, this grade feels a little more incomplete until he is placed in the refiner's fire.
Nadal must trust his backhand more often with up-the-line shots on his deuce corner. If he hits too many in-and-out forehands from the deuce alley, he will not be able to cover the court against bigger hitters, which could expose receding retrieval skills.
Above all, Nadal will need better depth with his backhand. If he searches too often for crazy angles, it will leave a lot of short balls sitting on a tee. Offensive depth is often a big indicator of Nadal's more impregnable defense.
Deep cross-court angles will patiently set up his offense, because when he is hitting with consistent depth, he is virtually unbeatable on clay.
In the VTR final against Horacio Zeballos, Nadal showed a wonderful corner-alley backhand in the fourth game of the match that had depth and pace. But he will need more explosion more often with this wing.
Nadal's conditioning and fitness need a lot more time. He will need to be ready to scamper with that extra energy that’s often a split-second difference between defense and offense. His confidence is still wavering on-court but will grow as he pushes his body further and as it responds well.
Each match will give him better timing. He needs to confidently slide into shots, stop on a dime and hit without many of the easy errors that popped up in Chile. Physical confidence will follow, and eventually he will be able to grind out three-set matches.
Nadal is excellent in following a formulaic script to close out lesser opponents. He will need to take more chances against the better players.
He will need to vary his patterns, as he did to Novak Djokovic three times on red clay in 2012. He can occasionally flatten his heavy topspin for opportunistic shots—if nothing else, to change the pace of his rhythm.
Nadal must find space to take the ball early and change directions with his shots. It will help him to be more unpredictable against his high-quality opponents. Increased fitness and game shape will be the prerequisite to improving his quality of play.
How will Nadal do against top 10 talent?
Players like David Ferrer and Giles Simon will likely not be the problem in June. However, players who can attack or hit cleanly—Tomas Berdych, Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Djokovic—will be a brand new test.
Nadal is not ready now, but he did all he hoped to do for one week. He wants to be a more finely tuned and physically imposing player in early April when Monte Carlo comes calling.
He needs to be sharper and quicker. He seeks mastery of his championship arsenal, which means hitting and running without the fear of injury or errors. He has completed only one of many steps ahead.
Overall results grade in week one of Nadal's comeback: B-
Overall championship conditioning for mid-February: C-