Rafael Nadal has just returned as men's tennis top dog, yes, you read correctly—returned.
For more than three years he was chasing his older rival Roger Federer, perhaps the greatest ever to play the game, before finally surpassing him in August 2008 after an incredible spring and summer, including Rafael Nadal's first Wimbledon title and first Olympic gold.
For almost a year, he held on to that treasured number one spot, including taking his first hard court Slam in a hard fought battle with, well yes, Federer once again.
Three times and on three different surfaces had Nadal toppled his older rival in Slam finals within a year. He also added an Olympic gold in singles in between, something that remains elusive for Federer.
Nadal was thus not only 'King of the clay,' but now also 'King of tennis'—a title held so firmly by Federer for more than four years prior to Nadal's reign.
At the top of his power, he lost to Federer on clay in Madrid just prior to the French Open in 2009. Not to worry, the high altitude and fast pace favours Federer's game.
Moreover, Nadal had just played a more than four hour three-setter against Novak Djokovic the day before. Surely it meant nothing.
Yet then came his first loss ever at the French Open, and in a five-setter on clay in general. Swedish Robin Söderling was on fire and took Nadal out. The world was stunned and marveled in disbelief.
Shortly thereafter, he refrained from defending the coveted Wimbledon crown that had been so endearing to him a year before.
Reason? The tendonits in his knees were damaged and needed rest. Nadal didn't feel ready to compete at the level he expected himself to play at, and had to withdraw from the battle without a fight.
As it turned out, Federer capitalised and won both of those Slams without having to go through the man who had beaten him the last three times they met in a Slam final. Moreover, in the process Federer got his number one ranking back.
Nadal fans will say Federer benefited from Nadal's injuries in 2009. Federer's fans will say the adverse holds true in regard to Federer's mono issues in 2008, and add that staying fit is part of what makes a player great.
I'm not here to solve that battle, but there's probably some truth in both arguments. Federer's physical troubles seems of a different magnitude though as he was still able to make the finals of three of the four Slams. But I'm digressing.
For the remainder of 2009, Nadal clearly struggled with confidence, level of play, and general fitness. In Nadal's case, confidence is completely interwoven with how he feels physically as he holds one of most physically demanding games in men's tennis.
Without being able to impose himself on court, he loses his edge, his advantage over each and every opponent—save Monfils.
Observers were speculating whether we've seen the last of him. Would his almost chronic knee problems do him out? Would he ever come back to his 2008 form that thrilled the tennis world and dethroned the mighty, almost immortal, Roger Federer?
2010 has already given us a large part of the answer. From the outset, it was clear that he was much better than in late 2009. But it wasn't before the tour hit the European clay, and Rafa won everything worth winning only giving a single set away in the process, that we saw he was truly back.
He also seems more aware of not pacing himself and giving him enough rest between tournaments—most evident when he skipped his beloved Barcelona title defence.
Moreover, he is in the process of changing his game, flattening some of his strokes, attacking more, and shortening the points—a change that is both beneficial to his health and his non-clay court game.
Following the French Open, he returned to number one and left Roger Federer one week shy of equaling Sampras' 286 weeks record ahead of the field.
Now is the time to consolidate and build on that lead—now is the time to prove that 2008 and early 2009 wasn't a fluke, but a changing of the guard only stopped by Rafa's own injuries.
Now is the time to make his own bid for tennis history and immortality. To prove to the tennis world that he is much more than the best clay-courter the world will ever see.
One may say, that he's proven that already with two non-clay Slams to his belt. But he needs more of those non-clay Slams to prove that he truly has developed into an all-surface player, and to make his own leap to the top of the all-time greats.
Now is his time of domination to begin. The world is awaiting. Is Rafael Nadal ready to take and earn his seat and leave Federer short of that Sampras 286 weeks record—not only for the time being, but forever?
Wimbledon 2010 will give us the answers. Wimbledon 2010 will tell us whether that 2008 final not only was the greatest match ever played, but also signified that the young warrior had not only catched, but eclipsed the older artist.
Last year injuries kept him away from proving that point. This year he is as fresh as ever and just cruised through his first match.
Wimbledon 2010 is an opportunity for Rafael Nadal to rise to the occasion, take the lead, and define himself as the number one, not only on clay, but in the world of tennis.
An opportunity to prove that 2010 is once again—Rafa-time.
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