Two months ago, Rafael Nadal lost in the Australian Open final to Stanislas Wawrinka in large part due to back pain. He still doesn't seem quite right, but he can definitely prove the opposite against Lleyton Hewitt at the Sony Open event.
Nadal did not fare well against Wawrinka. The Spaniard lost in four sets and nearly retired early on. He told the Associated Press, via ESPN, that retiring during the match was the last thing on his mind:
"Last thing that I wanted to do was retire. I hate to do that, especially in a final. Same time, is tough to see yourself during the whole year you are working for a moment like this, and arrives the moment and you feel that you are not able to play at your best."
In hindsight, retiring from the match might have been the best move for Nadal.
Playing through the remainder of a match where Wawrinka was clearly at an advantage could have possibly tweaked Nadal's back even more. Even after a lengthy injury timeout, Nadal still did not return at anywhere near full strength.
He won the Rio Open a month after the loss to Wawrinka, and Alexandr Dolgopolov was unable to put up any fight at all against the Spaniard. Dolgopolov got the best of him at the next event—the BNP Paribas Open—however.
Apparently, Nadal was still in pain leading up to the Rio Open. He told Stephen Wade of the Associated Press, via the National Post, that he was hoping just to deal with the pain: "We’ll have to see how it goes. I hope I can tolerate it."
Nadal lost in three sets in the third round to the Ukranian, establishing some suspicion that his back really wasn't at full strength.
He'll get the start in the Sony Open in the second round against Lleyton Hewitt. Nadal has taken the past five meetings between the two, and winning again at the Sony Open would show that his back is just fine. A loss against somebody who he has recently dominated—no matter how talented a player Hewitt may be—would arise a ton of suspicion regarding his health.
In fact, Nadal is in a great position to actually fare well in the tournament. Courtney Nguyen of SI.com points out just how lucky of a draw Nadal received for the tournament:
It’s about time Nadal got a draw that didn’t make his fans rip off their headbands in disgust. At the Australian Open, I referred to his section as “The Group of Death.” In Indian Wells, it was a “minefield.” Compared to those tournaments, this is a nice stroll along the sandy beaches of Key Biscayne. Murray, Djokovic and Federer are all in the opposite side of the draw, and the highest seed in Nadal’s quarter is No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro, who arrives with injury concerns. The Spaniard’s biggest actual threats before the final are Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka, both potential semifinal opponents, and Milos Raonic or Gael Monfils in his quarter. Nadal has never won Miami, but he’ll be well-rested after his early exit in Indian Wells.
This is the perfect position for Nadal to prove to the entire tennis world his back is fine. Winning at Rio was a great start, but the loss in Paris set him back just a little bit.
Look for Nadal to make quick work of Hewitt on his way to dispelling any concerns left about his back.