Rafael Nadal defeated David Nalbandian on Sunday to win the Brasil Open. It was the second straight finals appearance for Nadal since his return from injury, and a definite step in the right direction. But he won't be all the way back until he has success in a major.
The 26-year-old Spaniard decided to play it safe with his comeback. Instead of rushing back for the Australian Open, he opted to play some minor clay court tournaments where the matches are three sets and the pressure is far less.
He reached the championship match of the VTR Open, but was upset by Horacio Zeballos. He bounced back to take home the Brasil Open trophy, pushing his record to 7-1 for the season and moving him right back to the forefront of tennis discussion.
The best news to emerge from the back-to-back weeks of play is the fact he didn't suffer any serious setbacks. That's always the main concern when a player returns from an extended layoff. One false step and they are back on the shelf for a while.
No such issues for Nadal.
Beyond that, it's hard to read too much into his performance. The best player he faced over the past two weeks was Jeremy Chardy, and the shorter matches make it impossible to know how he'll handle best-of-five encounters at a major.
That's why any discussion about whether or not Nadal is "back" won't hold much significance until the French Open in May. He's the tournament's three-time defending champion and has won it seven times overall.
When you combine the pressure of winning another French title with the impact of longer matches on his body, we should find out a lot about where Nadal stands at Roland Garros. Everything before that isn't as important.
After all, if Nadal isn't able to reach his previous peak and compete for Grand Slam titles consistently, his comeback will never truly be complete. Fans want to see him make the Big Four whole again, and it's simply too soon to know if that will happen.
Wins over veterans like Chardy and Nalbandian are still better than the average player in a major, but it's not until he faces Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray or Roger Federer in a five-set match that we figure out exactly where he stands.
His past track record combined with his tireless work rate on the court suggests he should get back in the Grand Slam mix right away. It helps that the French Open is the first one he'll play, assuming there are no further injury issues.
That said, until he proves it at the three majors over the summer, Nadal can't officially be "back." He's on the right path, and his early results are reason for optimism.
However, there's a long way to go before he's back on the level everybody expects him to be.
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