It goes without saying that Horacio Zeballos' win over Spanish sensation Rafael Nadal on the clay courts of the VTR Open in Chile two weeks ago was not the expected outcome.
Rafa, arguably the greatest clay-court player of all time, was a step slower throughout that tournament, and rightly so. After all, it had been only his first event back on tour in more than seven months away from tennis after exacerbating a recurring left knee injury at Wimbledon.
Then came his title run at the Brazil Open, another move closer to his history-making form of old. Though never a cake walk to the final, he again showed us glimpses of his classic Rafaisms: boundless grit, an electric explosiveness between his feet and the earth beneath him, and the inability to accept defeat at any time or any scoreline.
This week, Nadal takes his steadily improving form to the final stop in his Latin American comeback tour at the 2013 Abierto Mexicano Telcel in Acapulco, an ATP World Tour 500-level event where Rafa is slated to play his first match Tuesday.
Though he is on pace to make himself a genuine threat for the European clay courts in the spring, the question of whether Rafa can come away from Acapulco unscathed and with Sunday's championship trophy in hand remains to be seen. That is largely due to the next-level tier of his competition waiting in the wings of the Mexican Open, a much greater distinction here than at the events in Chile and Brazil.
Before analyzing possible matchups against some of the world's best in the aforementioned competitors, it's important to assess Rafa's potential journey through the draw.
Suggesting that a qualifier could trouble Nadal would be teetering on the brink of blasphemy for the world's most dedicated Rafa fans.To that end, there isn't much to linger on in Nadal's first two rounds this week. The highest ranked opponent he can face is world No. 91 Martín Alund of Argentina in the second round, a man who owns a 3-3 career record on the official ATP tour.
Coincidentally enough, one of those three losses Alund has was to Nadal a week-and-a-half ago in the semifinals of the Brazil Open, and was one of the two matches in that tournament where Rafa was extended to three sets. But don't expect to see a similar result this time around. Nadal is getting better far too quickly for Alund to have another shot at taking down the impenetrable Spaniard.
It's in the quarterfinals, however, where Rafa likely will face by far and away his toughest test yet since returning. Nadal will likely go up against world No. 37 Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil.
This is the kind of match Rafa would have relished a year ago. It would have been the perfect way to gain good match practice, a sort of toner to more accurately measure his weighty forehands or immaculate footwork on the dirt he so effortlessly slides on. But not this week in Mexico.
Bellucci has the kind of game that can put pressure on Nadal. Being a lefty as well, Bellucci won't struggle as much with the fabled left-handed spin production by Rafa. With a flat, booming forehand that he doesn't mind taking on the rise (a stroke that sometimes looks as though it's breaking the sound-barrier), the 25-year old Brazilian can rush a still half-speed Nadal, who has struggled with his backhand from behind the baseline since returning. And if Nadal ends up dropping said backhands short in the mid-court with regularity, he may end up doing a lot more retrieving than dictating, a position the Spaniard does not want to be in while nursing his knee back to health.
If Bellucci—who is 0-3 against Nadal but hasn't played against him since last year at Wimbledon—can remain mentally strong and keep his focus more on the match and less on the tennis giant he faces across the net, he'll have a chance to push Rafa to the highest limits at this stage in the Spaniard's comeback.
From there, Nadal's likely opponent in the semifinals will be world No. 12 Nicolas Almagro, also from Spain, and an even more difficult challenge than the previous round.
With an undefeated 8-0 career head-to-head mark in favor of Rafa, this matchup may seem theoretically dull. But every tennis fan knows that the mere outcome of a match doesn't always tell its storied saga.
In 2009, Nico held match points against Nadal at the Paris Masters, but couldn't convert and ended up falling to the seven-time Roland Garros champion 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-5. Though that match was played on a hardcourt, any tight contest against a tennis great like Rafa should be a confidence booster for Almagro, who generally rests an echelon below Nadal but is several yards ahead of the rest of the tour. Almagro also took the first set off Nadal in their next match in 2010, this time played on a clay court in Madrid.
Though the matchup naturally favors Nadal, who'll employ heavy topspin to Almagro's vulnerable one-handed backhand, this is as good of an opportunity as Nico will ever have to knock Rafa off his perch. To go all the way against Nadal, Almagro will need to serve well and be unafraid of forcing the king of clay to come up with passing shots by taking the net.
Rushing Nadal's forehand wing will also be a possible strategy for Nico, but he'll have to be wary to hit with enough pace and depth or otherwise feel the unending wrath of Rafa's legendary weapon.
Aside from locking horns with Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer or Andy Murray—the other members of the big four—the final will in all likelihood present the biggest possible threat to halting Nadal's efforts at winning the title in Acapulco.
That threat should come in the form of the diminutive but feisty world No. 4 David Ferrer, yet another Spaniard playing for keeps this week. Ferrer, who overtook Rafa at the No. 4 spot in the rankings in January, comes into Acapulco having won the event back to back to back (2010, 2011, 2012) and is looking to tie the Austrian one-slam-wonder from the 1990s, Thomas Muster, at four consecutive and overall titles.
Since his disappointing showing in the semifinals of the Australian Open against Djokovic, Ferrer won the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires, an ATP World Tour 250 event. His form looks steady and consistent, as it nearly always has for the last two or three seasons. He doesn't possess any truly formidable weapons—besides his unbending fighting spirit—against an all-around talent like Nadal, which has been his downfall time and time again against his Spanish compatriot.
We should be throwing out the scorelines of their previous encounters on the dirt, because this is a different matchup altogether. Under normal circumstances with injuries aside, Ferrer will often play like a "poor man's Nadal" when facing the more successful Spaniard. Instead of using his inside-out forehand patterns to keep Nadal off balance, he'll be keen to take a defensive position behind the baseline, giving Nadal clearance to take off like a rocket.
But a different sort of Rafa, one stricken by a lack of match play, could mean very different things for a hungry Ferrer eager to notch his first win over Nadal on a clay court since 2004, when Nadal was only 18 years old. If Ferrer takes early advantage by finishing points before he runs the risk of falling behind in extended rallies, he can claim the first set—and possibly a mental edge, where Nadal has seemed to be somewhat lacking since his return—over Rafa.
Though it won't be said by either party, there's a lot at stake if these two are to meet in the finals. For Ferrer, the meaning behind victory is transparent: Beating Nadal on a clay court is practically career-making in itself, and tying the record for most titles in Acapulco is yet another example of the very high standard of tennis that the 5'9'' Ferrer plays day in and day out.
For Nadal, whether he is able to come through this week, particularly against the closest thing to a real life Energizer Bunny in Ferrer, tells us a lot. Falling to any of these foes is not cause for alarm, but it is a sign that significant work needs to be done before he can take back his aura of clay court invincibility in time for the European springtime swing.
Claiming the Abierto Mexicano Telcel trophy this week, on the other hand, will be a message to the tennis world that, while he has a long road ahead if he wants to once again be in reach of Grand Slam glory, Rafa's Latin American comeback tour was a success in nearly all facets and that the king of clay is ready to take back his throne.