Friday, 22 February 2013

Second Bites

After derailing his comeback in Chile by failing to overcome the challenge of Horacio Zeballos in the event final, Rafael Nadal finally bagged himself his first trophy in 9 months across the continent at the Brazil Open last weekend.

Needing just two sets to get past Argentine David Nalbandian, Nadal only hiccuped once, at the beginning of the second set, when he recovered from a 3-0 deficit after an early Nalbandian break.  Two breaks in each set from the Spaniard secured the victory in 80 minutes 62 63.

As welcoming a sight as it is to see Nadal back where he belongs, biting trophies against a dusty orange background, there still remains the worry that the damage done to his knees is more sustained and potentially career-ending than previously thought.  Throughout the Sao Paulo tournament Nadal remained far from his best, the rustiness manifesting itself as vulnerability as he fell short of rekindling his traditionally venomous top spin groundstrokes.  Additionally he still seems tentative on the knees; like a player carrying an injury through the dying sets of a match his sprints were couched in caution.  Against the ageing Nalbandian (playing in his first final since imploding at Queens back in June) such play can deliver a victory, but against anyone in the top 15 it will be exposed as ordinary.

Throughout the event, comments were made form the Nadal camp about the quality of the courts in Brazil.  The surface was faster than a hard court, they had told the press, and didn't suit Rafa's style of play, not allowing him to control the ball with his obvious core strength.  In addition there were comments referring to "bearable" pain on good days that Nadal was experiencing during and after some matches, which suggests that all is still far from well for the Spaniard.  For a player who relies so heavily on his physicality to shape his game, who needs to work for every point, and who doesn't have the free-flowing smoothness of a big weapon (such as Juan Martin Del Potro's forehand, Roger Federer's serve or Novak Djokovic's backhand), such comments suggest that this minor victory in a middle-tier competition shouldn't be heralded as Rafa's return.  It is small step rather than a giant leap, and looks at this stage to be pointing to an inability to successfully defend his 2012 Roland Garros crown.

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