Former tennis world number one Rafael Nadal has announced his return to training in Majorca and has been confirmed that his return to competitive tennis will come in January’s Doha ExxonMobile Open. Nadal hasn’t played competitive tennis since his shock loss to big hitting Czech Lukas Rosol in the second round of this year’s Wimbledon Championships due to a recurrence of his long-standing knee injury. With the return of a player widely considered to be one of the best of all time after what is a very serious injury, and by no means one that is likely to ever heal permanently, it will be interesting to see what effect this will have on the domination of tennis in the second half of 2011 by Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray – and indeed Roger Federer – and whether Nadal will be able to rejoin the “Big Four” in 2013.
2012 was the year of Andy Murray in the tennis world. I know, say what you will about Novak Djokovic and the great year he had. Perhaps even more significantly say what you will about Roger Federer who managed to regain the world number one spot and cement his legacy as the greatest tennis player ever to grace the game by capturing the Wimbledon title despite being significantly older than the rest of the top players in the game. But 2012 was the year of Andy Murray. He started the year with a semi-final loss in the Australian Open, and managed to reach the French Open quarter finals of the French Open on his weakest surface, reached the Wimbledon final for the first time, won Olympic Gold in the men’s singles (alongside his doubles silver with Laura Robson) and became the first Brit to win a major title in 76 years at Flushing Meadows in the US Open. With Federer another year older, both Murray and Djokovic will likely see 2013 as a chance to establish a new era for themselves. However, can the returning Nadal realistically hope to replicate the success of his earlier career and force his way back to the top of the game?
If this was to be settled entirely on talent, if Nadal is assumed to have made a full recovery and will be returning to the court 100% as the Rafa Nadal that toppled Roger Federer as world number one and who ended his era of dominance at Wimbledon then certainly, yes, he is talented enough and experienced enough to compete at the very top of the game for many years to come. However, knee injuries are historically difficult for sportsmen to recover fully from, and with tennis – especially when played in the style of Nadal – being absolutely no exception.
Nadal will win the French Open. Let’s not beat around the bush here and waste time discussing the inevitable. You could remove Nadal’s legs from his body and tie one arm behind his back and he’d still be my favourite to triumph on the Paris clay. Blindfolded. Nadal’s career record at Rolland Garros is the quite mesmerising 52-1, with one shock loss to an inspired Robin Soderling in 2009 interrupting what has been a career long dominance of the clay court seasons. Nadal will win the French Open. However, I think that will be his only major title of 2013, as well as his only final.
In Australia Nadal will be under a significant pressure on a court that does not traditionally suit his game, and one which is fairly hard on the joints, his determination and raw shotmaking ability should see him coast to around the quarter finals or semi finals, but any further than that in Australia or Wimbledon is probably unlikely. It is the last quarter of the season that will be interesting viewing for tennis fans however, and my suspicion will be that Nadal will play only a few hard court tournaments every season for the rest of his career. He’ll turn up to the US Open, and he’ll play, but with his knee problems of the past (revealed by Uncle Toni to be something that has plagued Rafa for seven years) the hard courts will be something he could be well advised to leave out of his calander, if not with the exception of the major at Flushing Meadows.
The future of Nadal in tennis as a major player, a top 10 player, a top 50 player even, depends entirely on his health. His knees could recover completely, and he could go on to dominate 2013, leaving me look rather silly. However, I fear that realistically we’ve seen the best of the phenomenon that is Rafa Nadal, and that especially on the hard courts, there’s a limited number of moments we’ll hear that famous ‘vamos’ from a huge winner. Whatever the future of his career holds the fact remains that Nadal is one of the most talented and passionate tennis players in history, and that this legacy will follow him no matter what happens in the remainder of his career.