by Rob Morgan
Juan Martin Del Potro put it best. "It's amazing how great he's recovered," the former US Open champion said after facing Rafael Nadal in an exhibition match earlier this week. "He's going to be fighting for No. 1 very, very soon."
Del Potro may have won their clash 7-6(4), 6-4 on an indoor hard court in New York but he’s well aware that things are only going to get tougher against the Spaniard as he continues to work his way back to where he left off over the next six months. In the past fortnight, the twinges in Nadal’s knee have lessened and he’s been able to move with greater abandon, leaping for volleys and sliding into the advertising hoardings and all the while, wondrously unafraid of suffering any crippling pains in his joints
And the new-found freedom has been evident in his results. Stronger than the preceding events in Vina Del Mar and Sao Paulo, the ATP 500 Acapulco tournament was always going to give us the clearest indication of Nadal’s chances at the big clay-court tournaments coming up in April and May, the stretch of the season he’s ruled supremely for the past eight years. Nadal couldn’t have expected to claim such a big prize, just four weeks into his comeback but claim it he did, and in some style, demolishing world number four David Ferrer for the loss of just two games in the final.
It was an emotional triumph for Nadal who wept into his towel as he waited for the post-match presentation ceremony. At times during his seven month layoff with tendonitis, he must have wondered whether he’d ever return as the US Open then the Australian Open both passed him by.
Now many bookmakers are placing him as the odds-on favourite to claim an eighth French Open title in June, despite the dominance of 2012 runner-up Novak Djokovic so far this year. Beating Djokovic on hard courts may currently be the toughest task in world tennis but if Rafa continues to rack up the titles on the dirt this spring, then it won’t be long before that old aura returns. American Kevin Kim once famously compared playing Nadal on clay to trekking through the Sahara and some of his opponents in Acapulco would have been very much in agreement.
Nadal’s doctor has warned him against overplaying and it’s going to be key for his team to try and contain his understandable exuberance to be competing again over the coming months. He’s decided to try and win a third title in Indian Wells over the next ten days but it would be perhaps advisable for him to withdraw from Miami. Nadal has said he feels playing on cement aggravates the tendonitis in his knee and there’s no need for him to be playing back to back Masters events at this stage.
In the past, he’s always played a very heavy clay-court schedule starting with Monte Carlo then Barcelona, Rome, Madrid and the French Open. Mindful of the need to ease himself back especially against the very best in the world, it would seem sensible for him to just choose a handful of these events. Monte Carlo would appear to be an obvious choice.
Nadal has not lost there since 2003, winning eight titles in the meantime and Djokovic, Andy Murray or Roger Federer are all thought to be skipping the tournament this year. But there’s no need to compete in Barcelona too. Nadal would do well to follow the example of Federer who’s setting himself a very sparse and disciplined schedule these days in an effort to remain on tour for the next 4-5 years. Nadal may be five years younger but he doesn’t have the knees of a 26 year old and he has to keep that in mind.