King of Clay Holds Court in Mexico

Andrew ProchnowAnalyst IMarch 3, 2013

Fans celebrate Rafael Nadal's return to the professional tour.
Fans celebrate Rafael Nadal's return to the professional tour.Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Acapulco, Mexico isn't typically associated with significant events in tennis history.  Consider that axiom amended.  

Rafael Nadal, hot on the comeback trail, put Acapulco on the map after his impressive display in the final of the Mexican Open.  Facing his Davis Cup teammate and countryman, Nadal cruised in impressive fashion beating, world No. 4 David Ferrer 6-0, 6-2 in just over an hour. 

Serious tennis fans will understand how difficult it must have been for Nadal to triumph so handily over Ferrer. And not only because of Nadal's well-publicized knee issues.  Ferrer is known for his humble and likable attitude on tour, and it probably wasn't Nadal's first intention to put up such a one-sided scoreline on his fellow Spaniard.  

That being said, an observer not familiar with recent events on the circuit might have assumed Ferrer was the player attempting a comeback, rather than vice versa.  The outcome of the match was never in question, with little to no drama throughout the entire 65 minutes.

However, Nadal's victory had far more to do with his continuing rehabilitation, than it did with the final box score.  After being sidelined from the tour since Wimbledon last year, Rafa only re-entered the fray of men's professional tennis a little over a month ago.  

Rafa was up and down against lower-tier opponents in his first event back on tour, the VTR Open in Chile.  In his first real test, he dispatched Jeremy Chardy, a player that had made a surprising run during the 2013 Australian Open.  But then, in a rare defeat on clay during a final, Nadal lost to Horacio Zeballos in three close sets.  Notably, the win gave Zeballos his first career title on the professional tour.   

Throughout the VTR Open Nadal had stressed he was mostly just happy to be back on tour, and that testing his knees was more important than the outcome.  Although this is undoubtedly true, Nadal himself had to feel some disappointment after coming up short against Zeballos, a player with 51 fewer career titles than the King of Clay.   

After Chile, Nadal moved on to the Brasil Open in Sao Paulo. Still tempering expectations for his comeback and the strength of his knees, Nadal walked away from that tournament with the title, beating David Nalbandian 6-2, 6-3.  Down to Nalbandian 0-3 in the second set might be the moment experts revisit if Nadal is able to make a lasting comeback in the sport.  Nadal cruised through the next six games to take the second set 6-3 and arguably hasn't looked back since.  

Thus far, Rafa's team appears to have crafted a very efficient plan for his comeback.  Led by his uncle, Toni Nadal, Rafa's entourage decided the clay circuit in the Americas would be the best place to test Nadal's current form.  

The red dirt Nadal played on over the last month is far more forgiving to his ailing knees than the concrete often favored on tournaments in the United States and Australia.  It's for this reason that Nadal has indicated he might bypass tournaments in Indian Wells, Calif., and Miami, Fla., before the European clay season gets underway.  

The degree of opposition in the past three tournaments also created an effective training program for Nadal, with the challengers in each tournament growing progressively stronger.  Realistically though, there were no threats to a healthy Nadal in either Chile or Brazil. 

And while getting the rust off, Nadal appeared at times to need the extra cushion between his ranking and that of his opponent.  The comeback against an aging Nalbandian was an especially good example.  

After the convincing win in Mexico, Nadal has without question made a statement to the rest of the tour.  Cutting through Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer consecutively in Mexico indicates that Nadal may be further along in his progression than previously thought.  Although it might be hasty to take this perspective and apply it to the balance of 2013.  While losing only two games to David Ferrer is impressive, Nadal may still experience a setback during the window of time before the next Grand Slam in France.   

By the looks of Nadal on the court, it appears he is playing at a slightly lower weight than in years past.  The intent of this strategy by Uncle Toni and his team seems clear: removing unnecessary stress from Nadal's infamous knees.  

For now, the strategy seems to be working.  Nadal appeared to easily lift his movement against the well conditioned Spaniards in Mexico.  Nadal also showed off his defensive prowess more than a few times throughout the tournament, chasing down several balls that only a month ago he might have ignored.  Instances of Nadal cracking his mighty forehand for clean winners, particularly down the line, were also striking. 

One thing to remember is that while Almagro and Ferrer certainly have big games, they are far from the most dominant forces on tour.  To reach his goals, Nadal will have to up his level at least one more time against the likes of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Roger Federer.  Rafa's knees may have held up in several best-of-three matches, but how will they respond to a potential five set marathon against one of the top three?   

A person's physiology is never predictable, especially in professional sports.  There are still many hurdles ahead of Nadal as he attempts to regain his former place amongst the Big Four.  However, fellow players and fans alike will most likely have breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the King of Clay's results in Mexico.  

With a familiar backdrop of red dirt, the King of Clay held court and found a level reminiscent of his former self.  For every fan of high-level tennis, that can only be a positive.