(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Mens tennis has not been the same since that fateful day in May, when world No. 1 Rafael Nadal was unceremoniously dethroned by Robin Soderling in the 4th round of the French Open.
While we've been surviving on steady (and delectable) entrees of Roger Federer's record shattering achievements, with a side of Roddick's reemergence and a dessert of Murray Mania, the sumptuous dining experience has seemed a little less five-star without the mouth watering phenom known as Rafa on the menu.
After a much needed (albeit impromptu) two and a half month respite, the wait is over. The feisty Majorcan will begin court activities on Monday July 20th, and, barring any unexpected complications, will take to the court at the ATP Masters event in Montreal, beginning August 8th.
But questions linger about his recovery. While Nadal's injury (insertion tendinitis of both quadricep tendons) seems relatively harmless, it has plagued Rafa over the years, and finally the cumulative effect of the injury reached a point where the unthinkable happened—pulling out of Wimbledon shows how serious the Spaniards knee issues are.
And the questions won't just be of a physical nature when it comes to Nadal. Psychology will also come into play. Nadal's loss against Soderling in Paris has to be weighing on him; as he rehabilitates he must face the fact that his reign of terror on clay was brought to a screeching halt by a man who at the time was a virtual unknown. His confidence can't be at an all time high right now, and the injury issues will undoubtedly play upon his belief.
So, what can we expect from Rafa this summer as the U.S. Open series begins? We know he's rested, but we also know he's scarred. Will he be able to play the same brand of outlandish physical tennis that has delivered him to the pinnacle of the sport, and, if he does, what will become of his knees? Is he destined to meet the same injury marred fate again and again, or will this new version of Nadal embrace longevity as much as he embraces punishing his opponents?
"You really don't know where the limit is, and you really don't know when you can get to it," Nadal told the press at Wimbledon when he announced his withdrawal. "I think I reached the limit and I basically need to reset."
Certainly Nadal has a lot on his plate as he enters this next telling phase of his career. Undoubtedly, he has learned that leading the tour in matches played, as he did in 2008 with 93, is no longer a viable approach for him to take. The new version of Nadal will have to play less, play smarter, yet still retain that capacity for linear and alarming spurts of improvement.
Until now, Rafa has been an animal who likes to get his reps in. It's ingrained in his personality. We all know that he's borderline obsessive compulsive (just observe the way he arranges his water bottles by his court side chair), and this side of his personality has no doubt led him to over work his precious knees. If he were a student, Nadal would be the king of all-nighters, feeding off his desire to be the best and running from his fear of forgetting what he has learned just when it's time to take the test.
In this next phase of Rafa's career he'll have to make changes that he won't be comfortable making. He'll have to lighten his schedule, shorten his practice sessions, and try to conserve energy while on court.
Can he do this, and still be the phenom on the court that we all know him to be?
One thing is for certain: When he returns to play in August, he'll be on the surface that has given him the most difficulty throughout his career. His lifetime record of 167-53 on hard courts is dwarfed by his astounding mark of 179-16 on clay. Add to that hard courts are roughest on the knees, and it doesn't bode well for Rafa in the initial phases of return.
Still, this is Nadal we are talking about. If he finds himself across the court from Mr. Federer at any point this summer, we all know damn well who the favorite will be.
And that brings us to perhaps the most intriguing and delectable of all dishes that the ATP currently has on its menu: Nadal vs. Federer. Or Federer vs. Nadal, depending upon your allegiances. What will become of the rivalry now that Roger has spent the last three months fortifying his legacy, just as Rafa has suffered the indignity of losing in Paris for the first time, followed by the disappointment of being unable to defend his Wimbledon title? How will the two greats match up mentally, physically, and emotionally, after all this?
As much as Federer has proven to all of us over the course of the French Open and Wimbledon, he has still not proven that he can get Nadal out of his head. Everybody else on tour is just a trivial little fly that he can swat away with one glorious stroke of his Wilson racquet, but Rafa, well, he's no fly.
It will be compelling when the two finally do meet again.
A rested yet scarred Rafa vs. a lionized yet fragile Federer.
Throw in a side of Murray and Roddick, pour a glass of Del Potro, and you just might have yourself one heck of a U.S. Open.