Saturday, 16 February 2013

Smoke, Mirrors and Knees

With all the careful planning of a Dan Brown book launch, or a call for a general election, Rafael Nadal's comeback from a chronic knee ailment began a fortnight ago on the dusty soil of the VTR Open in Vina del Mar, Chile.

After seven months nursing his knee joints, a hiatus that took him out of the 2012 US Open and the opening slam of 2013 in Melbourne, many column inches accompanied the return of the former world number one at the ATP-250 event.  The more hyperbolic were cynical in their suggestion that Nadal may never be able to compete on a hard court again, and would be forced to limit his activity to clay and grass surfaces.  Others, though, interpreted the Chilean comeback as a smart move, a way to test the knee in a relatively pressure-free arena - no top-4 players, no points to defend and without the blanket media coverage of a bigger event.

Unfortunately, the only person who can silence the cynics and the strategists definitively is Rafa himself, and the smoke and mirrors of press conferences, entourage interviews and sporadic practise court footage can never present the full story.  Suffice to say, in a week where the highest-ranked opposition he faced was Jeremy Chardy, Rafael Nadal's carefully orchestrated return to front line tennis looked to be shaping up well as he made the finals of both the singles and the doubles events in Chile.  Indeed, the Rafa return looked to have an almost serendipitous trophy-biting inevitability from the outset as defending champion and second seed at the event, Juan Monaco, was dumped out of the competition in the opening round.

However, hinting at how the knee injury remained in the process of healing, the Nadal camp reported that the pain was still present and the Spaniard was still finding the level at which playing would be acceptable.  His return was characterised, naturally therefore, with a tentativeness that manifested itself as match rustiness and a distinct deficit in foot speed.  However, the continued presence of the venomous whipped forehand negated much of the shakiness in his opening rounds against Chardy, Federico Delbonis and Daniel Gimeno-Traver, and took the Spaniard through to his first tournament final since Roland Garros.

Facing an unlikely opponent in the final, world #73 Horacio Zeballos, the couched comments on lingering problems seemed little more than delimiting misdirection as the minimal resistance Nadal faced on his way to the final suggested that his first tournament in 7 months was due to end in triumph.  However, Zeballos, who had failed to make it to the third round in any tournament over the course of 2012 and was playing in his maiden ATP tour level final, appeared to have saved his best for Sunday's final.  Forcing Nadal to defend two break points in the opening game of the match, the Argentine seemed to be playing the kind of once-in-a-lifetime tennis that was last seen on a tennis court around the time of the second round of Wimbledon when Lukas Rosol took 5 late night sets to defeat Roland Garros champion.

A hugely level first set between Zeballos and Nadal, separated in the rankings by nearly 70 places, eventually saw the Spaniard edge the advantage on a tie-break.  However,  the Argentine refused to wilt under the pressure of his illustrious opponent.  Indeed, one of the legacies of Rosol's victory last June was to shatter the sense of immortality of Rafael Nadal, to show that he was beatable and not just by those immediately around him in the rankings.  Zeballos was to take the second set by continuing to attack the rust-encased Nadal strokes, exposing the spaces on the court, and refusing to be bullied into long baseline rallies.

With neither player being broken on serve so far in the match, the final set was to prove a battle of nerves as Zeballos dropped his serve in the opening game before clambering back onto level ground in the very next game, the Nadal groundstrokes failed to sustain their usually penetrating depth.  After that, both players settled into a solid service rhythm until Nadal stepped up to the line to serve to stay in the match at 45.  The Argentine brought up three match points and converted on the first one when Nadal tamely prodded the ball into the net.

It was the first time Nadal had been beaten on clay in 16 matches, and was the first time that he had been bettered on the surface in a final by anyone not named Djokovic or Federer, and so denying him of the 37th clay court title of his career.  There will be endless speculation over the speed with which Nadal can return to the player he was before his injury woes set in, and indeed over whether he can even return to the same level again.  But this shouldn't detract from the Argentine's victory last weekend.  He was faced with a weakened opponent and what could possibly be his only opportunity to beat him, but he refused to be intimidated by Nadal's stature and proceeded to notch up an historic win against the expectations of the majority of spectators.  With Nadal continuing his comeback in Brazil this week, he is again spared the challenge of the rest of the top 10, and could chalk up a victory on those clay courts instead.

Full weekend results:

Vina Del Mar: Horacio Zeballos def. Rafael Nadal 67(2) 76(6) 64
Montpellier: Richard Gasquet def. Benoit Paire 62 63
Zagreb: Marin Cilic def. Jurgen Melzer 63 61


Lotus Cloud said...

Nadal has indeed looked shaky in his tournaments so far, and it looks like a victory is hardly foregone in the Brazil Open with a healthy David Nalbandian waiting for him in the final.

It's still early, of course, but I agree with you that Nadal's losses to Rosol and Zeballos have dinged his aura of clay immortality and made his opponents bolder. If he still isn't 100% by the time May rolls around, the newfound confidence of his opponents could give him unwanted trouble in tournaments that his ranking relies heavily on.

random cloud said...

Indeed - Monte Carlo and Madrid and the other big events on the European leg of the clay season in the run up to Roland Garros will be a true test of Nadal and his fitness.

If he's still impeded by the knees come May then this could be the year that Djokovic bags the one slam title that's missing from his resume.

I really don't want to call the Nalbandian match today. The last time he was in a final was at Queens and that didn't end too well (linesjudge-gate). Still, in a week where Federer failed to click in Rotterdam, strange things have been happening in the ATP while the WTA enjoys relative stability amongst the players at the top of the rankings. And Nalbandian could post his first win since 2010 and stop his slide out of the top 100.


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