Paris: Rafael Nadal’s return to action after a seven-month injury lay-off will be the focus of attention in tennis in Chile this week.
The 11-time Grand Slam champion has been on the sidelines since he was beaten in the second round at Wimbledon by Czech journeyman Lukas Rosol in late June.
During that time, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic have won Grand Slam titles and, as the other member of the sport’s Big Four, the question is whether the Spaniard will ever be able to compete again at the highest level.
Nadal, who will be 27 in June, has been careful to play down expectations.
Yes, he still has some pain from his troublesome knees and no, he does not expect to immediately rediscover his old winning ways in his first tournament back at Vina del Mar in Chile, the starter for the claycourt season that climaxes with the French Open in Paris in May/June.
“Of course, I still feel pain in the knee that sometimes stops me from playing, but you have to start sometime and I am here to try and give my best and hope that my knee comes through it,” he added.
“Undoubtedly, the clay surface is a little less aggressive on my knee,” he said. “My aim is to compete courageously and, hopefully, the knee will stand up to it.
“There is always the possibility that I will lose in the first round after so many months without competing.”
The consensus is that Nadal, who had been due to return to action at the notoriously physical Australian Open in January, but who pulled out due to a viral condition, has been wise to bet on clay once again.
Seven of his 11 Grand Slam titles have come on the claycourts of Roland Garros and he has amassed an unprecedented career win record of 254 out of 273 on the surface since he first exploded onto the international scene in 2005.
Vina del Mar is an essentially low-key tournament, but Nadal is looking to progressively rebuild his confidence in claycourt tournaments in Brazil and Mexico before heading up to the United States for the Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami on the less unforgiving (for his knees) hardcourt classics.
After that beckon Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and on to Paris — the red clay route that Nadal has dominated like no-one else over the last eight years.
What happens after that on the grass of Wimbledon and the hardcourts of New York depends to a great extent on how his physique and mental fortitude cope with the new challenges.
Few of his peers seem to doubt his ability to get back to the top level and everyone agrees that his return will be good for the sport of tennis given the Spaniard’s huge fan base.
“Can’t wait to see him back playing again. The sport will be all the better for it,” said Federer, whose rivalry with Nadal has marked tennis and all of sport for the last eight years.
“As far as I am concerned he will still be as difficult to beat as ever.”
Nadal fans will be encouraged by the last time he had a lengthy layoff to rest his knee joints, at the start of the 2010 season.
On that occasion, he promptly made two semi-finals at the hardcourt Masters tournaments in the United States and then went on to win all three of the claycourt Masters tournaments and yet another French Open title without dropping a single set, a feat never accomplished before in tennis history.
To round off the season, he would also lift the Wimbledon and US Open trophies.
Whether he can repeat that feat, or even get near it, lies a long way down a road that will commence on the Pacific Coast of Chile on Wednesday.