Two weeks ago in Chile, Rafael Nadal hit the court for the first time since Wimbledon and showed that, while he still has the ability to play tennis at a high level, it will be a long road back to form for the former world No. 1.
After seven long months rehabbing his knees, Nadal returned to the court for the first time in early February hoping to quickly return to form as one of the "Big Four" in men's tennis.
Nadal looked primed to kick off his comeback tour with a bang on the clay at the VTR Open in Chile. He came in as the No. 1 seed and rolled to the final without much opposition, routing recent Aussie Open quarter-finalist Jeremy Chardy in the semifinals.
Right when it seemed like the old Rafa would be back in the mix sooner than expected though, he had a hiccup in the final against unknown Argentine Horacio Zeballos.
Rafa's fifth career loss in a clay-court final, and the only one not to a guy named Federer or Djokovic, was a wake-up call for any that thought his climb back to the top would be easy.
Nadal took little time before jumping back on the horse, however. The day after the final, he was at the Brasil Open getting ready for a run on the indoor clay.
During the tournament, Rafa voiced his displeasure with the ATP for scheduling so many hard-court events during the season.
Given how knee problems have derailed his career in recent months, it's hard to blame the star for his outburst. But with the timing, it seemed like Nadal was drawing attention to his injuries to temper expectations.
He probably wasn't complaining, however, after a 6-2, 6-3 win against David Nalbandian gave him his first title since last year's French Open.
He wasn't perfect during his week in Brazil, dropping sets to unseeded players Carlos Berlocq and Martin Alund. The injuries looked to hamper him at times, but Nadal showed grit to power through the pain.
He also had some luck, with not a single match during the tournament coming against a seeded opponent. A better player may have been able to take advantage during the points where Nadal struggled with his knees.
A win's a win, and though his new watch costs more than he would make from winning this tournament six times, the victory was still a big step for Rafa's confidence.
The key to Rafa's comeback going forward isn't his confidence in himself and his play; he's never had a problem with that. It will be his confidence in the knees, and whether he can still use his aggressive, physical playing style without hesitation or pain.
After talking with Dan Loumena of the LA Times about his win in Brazil, it seems like, as long as his knees are functional, he can push through the pain and still succeed.
"When the knee is feeling better like today I feel like that I can do more of the things that I used to do my entire life," Nadal said. "If the pain is bearable like it was today, then it's fine."
Bigger tournaments are looming however, and we've yet to see if Rafa's knees can hold up when he has to play against higher-level competition. He hasn't taken on a top-25 player yet and will not do so at his next tournament in Acapulco, where he will again come in as the No. 1 seed.
Nadal has the right mindset at this stage in his recovery, not putting too much pressure on himself to come back and immediately beat a Djokovic or a Murray, he told CNN. "I don't have any problem playing against better rivals because I accept that I can lose," he said. "Losing is not a problem for me."
Nadal shouldn't temper his expectations too much, however. The clay-court season, Rafa's bread and butter, is right around the corner, culminating with the French Open in late May.
Monte-Carlo and the other Masters events will certainly be major barometers for the Spaniard going forward. At this point in his career though, Nadal has to be looking at the title defense at Roland Garros as his target to be back to full form.
Regardless of his play in the next couple months, the defending champion will be the biggest wild card going into his first best-of-five match tournament since he was bounced in the second round of Wimbledon last year.
The only thing holding Rafa back is his body. If Nadal can build up confidence in his knees and get his match fitness back by then, he's as dangerous as anyone in the field to take home the title and reassert himself with the rest of the "Big Four" at the top of the men's game.
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