For the first time in eight months the Big Four in men's tennis will be gunning for the same tournament title.
The return of Rafael Nadal last month following a seven-month layoff to rest his left knee has been a triumphant one thus far, but now he'll look to outlast the likes of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, long-time rival and legend Roger Federer and reigning U.S. Open champion Andy Murray at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, Calif. this March.
So, what can we expect from Rafa at his first hard-court tournament in nearly a year?
Let's take a look.
Rafa Will Keep Improving
Nadal is only going to get better as he continues to condition his body. As we witnessed in three clay-court tournaments, Rafa seemed to improve every week. After reaching the final of the VTR Open in Chile, he won the Brasil Open and then dominated world No. 4 David Ferrer in the final of the Mexico Open this past weekend to win his second straight singles tournament.
That's not to say that Nadal will win at Indian Wells this March. After all, the pressures of playing on hard courts present an entirely different obstacle for Rafa. But his confidence and game should continue to grow over the course of the tournament.
He's off to a 12-1 start in singles this season, and has won nine straight matches over the past three weeks.
He should at least add another three wins to that streak before he's expected to run up against Roger Federer in the quarterfinals.
There Will Be Hesitation
Rafa may be back, but he's still not 100 percent. And in his first hard-court tournament in roughly a year, tennis fans should expect some hesitation from the Spaniard.
It wouldn't shock me if Nadal let some retrievable winners get by him in order to preserve his knees. Sliding on hard surface isn't at all like it is on clay, where the softer, more forgiving surface helps propel players toward the ball without friction.
Although we saw plenty of Rafa's relentless style in his recent clay-court victories, his indecisiveness to even play this tournament will certainly show on the court. This isn't a fun, goofy exhibition like the one he played at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Nadal Will Bow Out in Quarterfinals
Nadal would be the first person to say that he doesn't expect to emerge from Indian Wells with a singles title this March. And with the other three members of the Big Four standing in his way of the crown, it would be beyond bold to expect Nadal to get past the quarters.
Rafa is on Federer's side of the draw, meaning that he would likely have to take on the 17-time Grand Slam champion in a potential quarterfinal matchup next week. That's assuming he and Fed both survive their first three matches.
There's a great chance they will, though. That said, I think Fed will get the better of his rival, sending Rafa home upset, but pleased with his overall performance.
So long as Nadal commits to play hard courts, it's quite alright to take baby steps.
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