You knew that is was going to be difficult after not playing for 7 months. Still it was rather surprising that Rafael Nadal lost on clay to a 27 year old journeyman ranked no. 73 in the world. Thus there are now 3 men who have defeated Nadal in a final on clay, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Horacio Zeballos.
It was great this week in Chile for the sport of tennis to have one of its rock stars back. Rafa showed flashes but obviously needs more time and reps to return to peak form. A couple of observations from his matches this week. First, he’s dealing with a lot of rust. You simply can’t duplicate real match play in practice. Most notably he managed to win only 29 % of points on the Argentine’s 2ndserve, breaking him only once. Normally Rafa is one of the best returners of serve in the world. Afterward, Nadal, brutally honest as usual, said he lacks re-action speed. That will come with more match play. Right now his timing is a little off, which is to be expected after a long layoff. I’ll never forget when Michael Jordan returned from his first retirement after 2 years. In his first game back , it took him almost 2 quarters to score. My point is that it takes time to regain the suddenness and the anticipation, even for world class athletes. Second, I did like the speed he was getting on his serve. Especially serves wide in the deuce court and up the tee in the ad court. Tennis fans know this is completely against his maddening patterns. Those 2 serves can become huge weapons for Nadal, allowing him to win some cheap points. He just needs to hit his spots more consistently.
Finally, I still think he’s spooked by his troublesome knee. Again this is quite normal, athletes need time to adjust psychologically and learn to trust a previously injured joint. Nadal often refers to the microscopic difference between winning and losing on the tour. Often it just comes down to who is mentally tougher during the big points. Only time will tell if Nadal can recapture his aura of invincibility in time to defend his French Open Championship. See you on the courts, I’ll be the fat guy grunting.....
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