With the late afternoon shadows crossing centre court at the VTR Open in Chile, a dark haired 26 year old Spaniard grunted, ripped a forehand winner, and followed it up with a series of energetic fist pumps. VAMOS! Rafael Nadal had just taken the opening set in his comeback match against Argentine Federico Del Bonis 6-3. That moment reminded the sporting world exactly what they had been missing for 7 long months, the unique aura of an 11 time grand slam winner and one of the greatest athletes of his generation. Nadal’s re-emergence from a knee injury induced hiatus at the obscure tournament has been as straight-forward as many had expected. Barring a major upset, Nadal should beat his semi-final opponent Jeremy Chardy and go on to clinch the title. What’s more important is how sharp Nadal looks and the implications his comeback has on the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) landscape.
Whilst Federico Del Bonis and Daniel Gimino-Traver, the two opponents Rafa has defeated so far in his comeback do not exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents, the efficiency of Nadal’s performances was still noteworthy. He has shown less rust than expected, serving with confidence and moving his foes from side to side in the punishing manner for which he is renowned on clay. Arguably the greatest clay-court player of all time is still proving to be his dominant and intense self. Nevertheless, there have been a couple of minor hitches; at times the the 26 year hasn’t hit the ball with the usual depth, he also showed some nerves in the final game of his quarter-final match against Traver, leading to a rather erratic finish. As we move into the Spring and the opposition gets tougher, Nadal with more matchplay under his belt will do one of two things: struggle to adjust to facing top quality foes as he did in his previous comeback in 2009 or thrive and once again mount a charge to the top of the world rankings, having fallen to number 5. The two prestigious American hard-court events in March at Indian Wells and Miami will be pivotal in his comeback.
Murray, Federer, Djokovic and Ferrer have been put on notice. The King of Clay is back. What happens now is anyone’s guess; another injury to Nadal’s troublesome knees cannot be ruled out but for now the Majorcan Matador is back and the flavour of the ATP 2013 season has just become even more tantalising.
By Shingi Mararike