Rafael Nadal is on his way back

By Online Editorial   

Rafael Nadal

After what must have been an excruciating spell on the sidelines, the deposed World number one Rafael Nadal has announced his likely return to the circuit.

The Spaniard recently trained for the first time in a couple of months, after having been forced to withdraw from Wimbledon because of the tendonitis in his knee.

Nadal is now aiming to return to competitive tennis at the Montreal Masters in August, where once again he is defending Champion. That will mark the start of the build up to the US Open, the one Grand Slam title Nadal has yet to win.

Prior to Nadal’s injury, he was unquestionably the world’s best in 2009, having won his first hardcourt Grand Slam crown at the Australian Open, as well as Masters Series crowns at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, and the Monte Carlo and Rome shields.

The French Open was considered a formality, and there was talk that this could be the year we finally saw a repeat of the calendar ‘Grand Slam’, until the curse of Nadal’s knees struck once more.

Now he has lost his number one ranking, his second spot is in jeopardy and no one is quite sure whether Nadal will be the same player when he does return.

During his successful Australian Open campaign, Nadal showed that he had successfully adapted his game to the demands of hardcourt play. He was more comfortable taking the ball on from on top of the baseline, rather than five feet further back as was his approach in previous years.

He was also more willing to flatten out his groundstrokes in search of a winner earlier in the rally, particularly off the backhand wing, and his serve was more of a weapon, rather than simply a way of starting a baseline duel.

However, the likelihood is those changes don’t go far enough if Nadal is to relieve the strain on his clearly suspect knees, and therefore give himself the chance of fulfilling his incredible talent over the course of his career.

With all the success that he has had, it is easy to forget that Nadal is still only 23 years old, and would ideally like to have seven years left as a genuine Grand Slam contender.

The changes that Rafa and his uncle Toni devised to improve his play on the faster surfaces weren’t made only to be better on surfaces other than clay; team Nadal were well aware that the longevity of his career was at risk if he didn’t adapt his game.

As well as looking to shorten the points thus reducing the wear and tear on his joints, Nadal also slimmed down, to lessen the weight his knees had to bear. In recent photos, it looks like he is even slimmer still, certainly compared with the impressively muscular physique of a couple of years ago.

If he continues to lose weight, he could also risk losing some of his strength off the ground, not to mention his stamina and powers of recovery. Would he still be able to win back-to-back five set matches at the end of a Grand Slam tournament like he did at the Australian Open?

While it’s clear that Nadal will have to modify his style of play to avoid burnout, he will also need to take a close look at his tournament scheduling both this year and over the course of the rest of his career as a whole.

The Spaniard has achieved his goal of reaching the pinnacle of world tennis, and his career will now be judged on how many Grand Slam titles he wins, so the wisest thing he could do would be to limit the number of tournaments he plays, particularly on hardcourts.

It is hardly ideal that his return to the tour coincides with the summer hardcourt season, and he would do well to avoid playing any tournaments besides the Masters events and the US Open itself. While that may mean he isn’t giving himself sufficient matchplay to get back to his best as soon as possible, he does minimise the risk of injuring himself again so soon after the latest setback, and that has to be his main priority.

Nadal must start adopting a long term view to his playing schedule, and if that means he cherry picks only the best tournaments and risks the number one ranking in favour of Grand Slam titles, so be it.

When it comes to the rest of this season specifically, Nadal is going to be vulnerable to early round defeats. He is short of matchplay and practice, and the knee injury must have left some mental scars which will in all likelihood mean he isn’t willing to throw himself around the court with his usual vigour.

He won’t start as favourite for many of the big titles during the upcoming stretch, but he will still be well fancied so it’s worth keeping an eye out for potential bogeymen early during the next few tournaments and considering backing them. As for Nadal’s ultimate goal: the US Open, this year it will probably be a bridge too far.

If he did win at Flushing Meadows (6.2), it would be an incredible achievement, casting a shadow over Roger Federer’s record-breaking year, but even for the superhuman Spaniard, 2009 looks likely to end in further disappointment.

Reproduced with permission from betting.betfair.com. © The Sporting Exchange Limited

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