Rafael Nadal's triumphant return to professional tennis has already been aided by a tournament win at the Brasil Open. After a semifinal win at the Mexican Open on Friday, he will now face his toughest challenge since returning from the injury that hampered most of his 2012 season—David Ferrer.
Ferrer will be waiting in the Mexican Open final (via ESPN), and Nadal will enter the match on Sunday facing his stiffest competition in the midst of testing out his bothersome knee.
After cruising through his semifinal win over Nicolas Almagro, Nadal will gear up for his second win in three tournaments during the 2013. Against Ferrer, a man he has beaten 16 times to just four losses during their head-to-head battles, Nadal does not believe he is the favorite to win another trophy.
As reported by Tennis.com, Nadal is staying humble and taking a grounded approach to his championship match with Ferrer on Sunday. Because of the bum knee and subsequent rehab to get back to a match like this one, Nadal knows there is still a long way to go:
Being in the final is a win for me. I'm not in a position to pick me in any case. First, because the rival I have is one of the most difficult that you can find, and one of the opponents who is in the best form.
Nadal is certainly in fine shape. Reaching the finals in his first three tournaments back from injury is an accomplishment in itself, and that goes to show fans just how hard he has worked to get back into elite form.
Still, concerns about his knee are lingering.
After Rafael Plaza reported on Twitter that Nadal was planning on skipping Indian Wells and Miami in an attempt to get ready for the French Open, it also became clear that he's not 100 percent—he wouldn't be skipping tournaments if that were the case (a report, via SI.com, casts some doubt on the assertion):
While the move is likely good for Nadal's long-term outlook, it doesn't change the fact that he's clearly not 100 percent just yet. That makes Sunday's match against the always agile Ferrer one that will really test the stress and tension on his patella tendon.
Ferrer is a noted opponent who likes to spread the ball all over the court. Although he does not have a huge power game with his shots, his placement and technique are pristine, and he is considered one of the best returners in tennis right now.
Nadal has an advantage in striking, but if Ferrer turns this into a back-and-forth match, there's a good chance we will see both Ferrer win No. 5 and the true extent of how well Nadal's knee is holding up three tournaments into the season.
It should be a great match at the Mexican Open. Tennis is better when Nadal is playing like a champ, but the encouraging progress of less-publicized guys like Ferrer is also good for the ATP tour. Either way, look forward to a great match between these two countrymen on Sunday afternoon.