It isn't the French Open final, but Sunday's final at the ATP Mexican Open offers Rafael Nadal a golden opportunity to send a strong message to the rest of the tennis world.
Nadal has cruised through the first few rounds in Acapulco, not dropping a single set through four matches. Next up, standing in between Nadal and his second title of 2013 is fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, the highest-ranked player Nadal has faced since returning last month from his seven-month layoff.
The 26-year-old clay-court master has already acknowledged that Ferrer is the favorite for Saturday's final, though, showering his compatriot with compliments while keeping his comeback in perspective (h/t AP via ESPN.com):
I'm in no condition to be or even say that I'm the favorite because I'm facing one of the rivals in the best shape of the circuit. Not only he's a great player, he's playing great. To win tomorrow I will have to play a perfect match or otherwise it would be impossible to win it. I don't think I'm to his level yet, but I'm ready to give it a try.
But it's not about what Rafa is saying, instead how he's performing on the court.
He's clearly not 100 percent just yet, but a lot of what made him such a special player to watch in the past has stuck with him through his layoff. He's a relentless defender still, and one of the best at chasing down balls, saving 73 percent of his service game break-points and converting on 43 percent of his returning break-point chances.
What does Rafa have to do to prove he's back among the tennis elite?
Nadal is also excelling in his service games, winning 76 percent of his first serve points through three tournaments this year.
But Rafa's return won't be official until he defeats a world-class player. And if his goal is to avoid the lesser-known hard-court tournaments in lead-up to the year's second Grand Slam at Roland Garros, then this weekend's clash with Ferrer could be his best shot to defeat a big-time men's contender.
Topping a 31-year-old David Nalbandian in the final at the ATP Brasil Open hardly sends a message to the likes of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. But knocking off Ferrer, the world's No. 4 in just his third tournament back from a lengthy break would not only re-establish Nadal's clay-court dominance, but signal his return to the top of men's tennis just months before he goes for his eighth career French Open title in Paris.
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