As the sun sets on the Sunshine Double of Indian Wells and Miami, tennis begins to turn to terre battue, or what is more commonly known as red clay as the spring portion of the tennis season begins. Fans eagerly awaiting the change of surface can also be excited about the return of clay-court legend Rafael Nadal. Rafa this week is using the Davis Cup team competition to cautiously begin his comeback from a hip injury suffered during his Australian Open quarterfinal against Marin Cilic. Nadal tried to make a return to the hardcourts earlier in Acapulco, but reaggravated his injured hip muscles while training before his first match. This forced him to withdraw from both Indian Wells and Miami. The hope was — and is — to regain full health before he starts to defend his record-shattering clay titles of 2017, which culminated in his tenth Roland Garros championship.
I guess you could say it is fitting that Nadal has decided to begin his comeback at Davis Cup. Both Nadal and Davis Cup are suffering from effects due to packed scheduling. This could be one of the last times fans will be able to see Nadal, a four-time Davis Cup champion, in the “vintage” tennis team competition format. If the format change is approved by the International Tennis Federation, starting in 2019 Davis Cup will become a one-week event at a fixed undisclosed location. An 18-country field would meet late in November, trying to mirror the excitement and success of soccer’s World Cup competition. Such a shake-up, if it occurs, would unfortunately remove opportunities for top players such as Nadal to adjust their tournament schedules when returning from injury. As Nadal continues to age, many have wondered when he would begin to revise his schedule to combat the physical demands of the tour. Nadal’s 2018 withdrawals may prove that he is finally taking that advice to heart.
“Every time is different. Every feeling is different,” he said in his doubt-filled 2015 season. “Every time you come back, you have the doubts, you have the feeling that you are far away from your best.”
That famous statement was made three years ago, but the quote could still apply to his current return. Since 2014, Nadal has experienced more injury occurrences beyond his troublesome knees. He has battled injuries in his back, wrist and hip. He has played with appendicitis and dealt with anxieties on court that have hindered his ever-burning drive to maximize his potential as a tennis player.
Coach Carlos Moya is asking for fans to have patience — Nadal is not 100 percent, yet he could test his body in two matches for Spain, which has the tough task of facing Germany at home in Valencia’s scenic Plaza de Toros bullring stadium.
Two record-setting streaks are up for grabs during this tie: Spain’s 26 straight home tie wins and Nadal’s 22 singles wins in a row for his home country. Those two statistics can give Nadal some confidence as he faces the always-competitive Philipp Kohlschreiber and (on Sunday in reverse singles, should it be needed) Alexander Zverev, fresh off his first Miami Open final appearance. Even a full-strength Nadal would describe Kohlschreiber and Zverev as tricky opponents. If he wanted to test his physical well-being and tennis acumen after a multi-month layoff, these opponents should meet his standards.
As for Nadal meeting his own standards of performance? We will begin to find out this weekend, an initial step in a clay-court season in which Nadal’s health must be able to support his game.
As Nadal’s peers — Djokovic, Murray, and Federer — are proving, there’s no need to rush back or think that the full arsenal of shots has to come together right away. It doesn’t.
The titles and glories will still be available, but health must be a priority in the years to come.