Rafael Nadal hits the comeback trail that leads from China to London

Rafael Nadal makes a winning return to action with a straight-sets victory over Richard Gasquet at China Open

It’s fair to say that Rafael Nadal has been missed by more than the army of fans that circles the globe.

Take the comment made—and repeated in various iterations—in the media centre at the US Open a few weeks back. It went something like: “It just doesn’t feel the same without Rafa playing: He brings an extra dimension to it all.”

For even the most hardnosed journalists invariably find the time to seek out Nadal on a tennis court—and afterwards pack his press conference.

Yes, it’s fair to say that the physical and mental intensity brought to a match by the great Spaniard is missed throughout tennis.

So his return to the tour after almost three months away with wrist injury—his last competitive match was a fourth-round loss to Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon—has been eagerly awaited.

Not that Nadal has been idle. The Internet has been awash with photos of his practice sessions in sleeveless shirts reminiscent of those early ‘piratical’ days. And he’s found time to schmooze with Ronaldo across a poker table, and to stop off in Kazakhstan for an exho match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga—a sensible way to test out that wrist en route to the points-rich Asian swing.

But fans of Nadal’s youthful look—the cropped sleeves and straggling locks—were quickly disabused when he opened his campaign on Beijing’s majestic show court. Not only was his look a sharp co-ordination of aqua and silver highlighted by flame red, but the Nadal hair was cropped too.

It did not take long, though, for such frippery to be forgotten. Once Nadal hit the court, it was as if he had never been away. And sadly for his first-round opponent, the not inconsiderable Richard Gasquet, that was anything but good.

Twelve times these two had played one another, 12 times Nadal had won. Gasquet had not even managed to win a set off Nadal since taking a first tie-breaker at the Rogers Cup in 2008.

Certainly this time, Gasquet put up strong resistance in the first set. They hit a similar number of winners, errors and volleys, they each won a similar number of first-serve points and each worked three break points. But it was Nadal who converted one of his chances to break and take the set, 6-4.

With that, Nadal began to bristle with confidence, Gasquet to drop his head, Nadal to lift his first serve to 81 per cent, Gasquet to ebb away to 35 per cent.

Nadal went on to convert three out of four break points and race to a 20-minute, 6-0 second set and victory. That made it 13-0: Lucky for some, but not Gasquet.

Nadal arrived for the Asian swing, lest it be forgotten, with his place at the ATP World Tour Finals already assured. However, despite an absence that has taken in the entire US Open Series, it is quite possible that this most competitive of animals has set himself other targets.

Beijing’s top seed Novak Djokovic, who surged through this phase of the season in 2013 to win every tournament from China to London, will also remember that he conceded the No1 ranking to Nadal after the two men contested this very title.

The Spaniard went on to claim the year-end No1, too, and there are certainly enough points left on the table this season for him to snatch that accolade again—though Djokovic and the current No2 in the rankings race, Roger Federer, would have to make poor showings in the key remaining tournaments: the Shanghai and Paris Masters and the World Tour Finals in particular.

However, Nadal’s prowess on hard courts—proven by multiple Masters and Grand Slam titles on the surface—will not be underestimated by his rivals. He won the first of four titles this year on Doha’s hard courts, and although Djokovic has already won his 20th consecutive match in Beijing, Nadal is now up to 13 wins for just two losses here. He won this title on his debut in 2005, won Olympic gold here in 2008, and has reached the final of the Shanghai Masters.

One of the few titles that Nadal has not won is the end-of-year finale, and that must surely now be on his radar, for his injury absence has ensured he will not arrive in London, as he has done so often before, with his batteries drained.

But while Nadal has been upbeat about his fitness—“I am fine, I am much better… I’m in good condition to compete again”—he was typically cautious about predicting his own success.

“My motivation is always high. I am coming here to Beijing for a big tournament. The best players are here. I try my best always… This part of the season has always been a little bit difficult for me, and will be for sure even more this year after stopping for three months… That was really bad news for me.

“But the last part of the season remains. I am going to try to be ready for it. I don’t know in what condition I am going to be… but I hope to practise and play as much as possible to be in rhythm again.”

Nadal is right about the quality of the Beijing field. His draw could throw up Fabio Fognini or Ernests Gulbis in the quarters and Tomas Berdych, John Isner or Tommy Robredo in the semis. And of course he is likely to face four-time champion Djokovic in the final, too.

But even if he falls short here, in Shanghai and even in Basel and Paris, make no mistake. Winning in London for the first time would trump all of them.

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