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By Franklin L. Johnson

Rafael Nadal Returns to Vina Del Mar The sight of Rafael Nadal stepping onto a clay court was once a tennis exclamation point. Nadal played like a declarative statement on clay.  But this week, when the seven-time French Open champion ends a seven-month sabbatical from the sport and returns to action in Vina del Mar, Chile, he’ll carry both a Babolat racquet bag and an immense question mark on his shoulders.
Rafa has shown strong recuperative powers in the past, but right now, we don’t know what he can or cannot do in the aftermath of the longest layoff of his career.
The secrecy surrounding the state of Rafa’s creaky knees makes it difficult to gauge how strong he will come back initially. However the fact he’s wisely coming back at a 250 level tournament — the lowest-level ATP event — and that he’s entered into the doubles draw with Argentine Juan Monaco suggests Nadal is confident and curious enough about the state of his knees to play both singles and doubles.
It is a good idea for Rafa to return on his beloved clay, both physically, to take some stress of his knees while he tries to play his way back into form, and psychologically in that he’s returning to the surface where he feels most comfortable.
That said, I think this comeback will be more demanding than anything Rafa has ever tried to do on the tennis court. He’s only 26 years old, but his body, particularly his joints, seem older to due his physically punishing style of play.
Clearly, you can never doubt a man who has won the career Grand Slam and came back with a vengeance in 2010 to collect the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in succession.
The biggest mistake Nadal could make is to try and win the entire clay season. This effort could hurt his chances of a reasonably full recovery. The problem is Nadal knows only one way to fight: That's all-out, all the time.
If you’ve paid attention to the ferocity with which Nadal plays, then you know he's probably already chomping at the bit to get out there and prove he's still someone who should be considered in the conversation when discussing the near-term future of the pro game on the men's side. He has to be very conflicted. It's not like all this happened while he was on the usual slippery slope to retirement. He was at the top of the mountain, fresh off his record-setting seventh French Open championship, when he suffered the shocking loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last June and it became evident to him and his camp he had to deal with his knee.
Although he's young in years, Rafa knows his body has a whole lotta competitive battles in it. Nadal is no fool. He knows that mountain won't be easy to climb. I find it interesting he still thinks he can be the top player in the world again. All this on one leg and a reduced hard-court schedule to protect his body? It ain't gonna happen. Top Five? He’s No. 5 now, so that’s possible long term as well.
Nadal surely will have to take his time and see how his knee deals with the physical pressure. Rafa never tells you much about what's going on inside of him. We always knew he played in pain for years. He damned the torpedoes and did what he always did: He fought furiously, no matter the pain. It's hard to think we may be looking at the end of the Raging Bull.
There's never been a greater competitor than Rafa in our sport, but we all may look back on that epic five-set 2012 Australian Open final against Novak Djokovic as the match that doomed him.
This is why I say each and every match should have definite limits. There should be breakers in every set...period! We're long past the day when it's okay for players to get into these Mexican standoff matches without taking into consideration the long-term consequences. How many careers were shortened due to matches of this length and ferocity? How come we don't have an inquiry on this subject? Battles of attrition are indeed valiant and exciting, but who are we kidding?
Even the great sport of pro boxing realized interminable matches were not in the best interests of the athletes or the sport. So, they shortened the lengths of bouts. Now, the purists screamed bloody murder, but more reasoned opinions prevailed.
It's time pro tennis did the same. Why do we have various match formulas at the majors? Why can't we have one system for all four Grand Slam events?
I believe the first week's matches at majors should be the best-of-three sets with the second week being the best-of-five. I'm going out on a very reedy limb to say we're going to see a change in format some time in our lifetime. Now, that's saying a really big mouthful when you take into consideration the sclerotic movement of decision-making in tennis.
For his long-term strength, I believe it’s wise for Rafa to take it relatively easy for the first few weeks until he regains his physicality and confidence. I hope he can return to his place at the top of the sport. However, I think this mountain may be a little to steep for the Raging Bull. We may have already seen the best from this legendary champ.

(Photo Credit: AFP Photo)


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