London: Rafael Nadal will on Tuesday begin tennis’s most anticipated comeback since Bjorn Borg dusted off his wooden racket in 1991.
After seven months out with a knee injury, Nadal rejoins the tour as the world No. 5, as well as the top seed in low-profile clay court tournaments in Chile, Brazil and Mexico. But how long might it take him to regain his intimidating aura?
According to Andy Murray, we should expect a period of testing out. The rest of the locker room will spend the coming weeks assessing the state of Nadal’s body and mind. Tennis players are like piranhas, and if the French Open champion shows any hint of vulnerability, everyone will soon start to believe that they can emulate Lukas Rosol’s shock win at last year’s Wimbledon.
Asked whether the returning Nadal would still inspire the same sense of awe in lesser-ranked opponents, Murray replied:
“I don’t think straight away. The first weeks and months back, you would think people will be expecting him not to be at his highest level. They will believe they will be able to upset him.
“Over time, aura comes with winning, confidence, people fearing you. If Rafa wins the first two or three tournaments back in South America, that changes and people will be worrying about him getting back to his top form quickly. We will just have to see how he does at the tournaments but he will get it back again. I expect him to stay around the top of the game for a few years for sure.”
Murray and Nadal are old friends and allies off the court, as well as rivals on it. At times their relationship has been so close, and the mutual respect so great, that you wondered if it might create a problem for Murray, who is the junior partner in terms of both age and achievements.
In 2011, for instance, the two faced off in three Grand Slam semi-finals and Nadal won the lot. It is only in his absence that Murray has pushed on to become a grand slam winner and genuinely paid-up member of the ‘Big Four’ (or, at least, ‘Big Three’, as it has been since July last year).
Could 2013, then, represent Murray’s best chance to make an impact at the French Open? It has been his weakest tournament of the four slams, the only one where he has yet to reach a final.
Nadal, meanwhile, has won the event every year since he was 18, with one misfire in 2009 when his knees were playing up and his parents’ marriage was disintegrating.