After being sidelined for seven months due to a partially torn and enflamed tendon in his left knee, Rafael Nadal has returned to tennis, and fans couldn’t be happier. In his first tournament since the injury, the 11-time Grand Slam champion lost in the Chile Open final to world number 73 Horacio Zeballo. This Sunday, however, Nadal finished his second tournament since last summer in a glorious fashion, defeating David Nalbandian 6-2, 6-3 in the Brazil Open final.
It was the Spaniard’s second time winning the clay court event, and while it is a considerably lower profile tournament than other tournaments Nadal was used to winning, it holds a special place in his heart. The first time Nadal won in Sao Paulo was in 2005, just months before his first of seven French Open titles launched his ascension to tennis stardom. Now, eight years later, the King of Clay hopes a victory in Brazil will spur another run to the top of the tennis world as he attempts to rebound from his debilitating knee injury.
Even with the seven-month break, Nadal is ranked number five in the Emirates ATP Rankings behind Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and David Ferrer. However, competing with those four while rehabilitating his knee could prove difficult. Nadal will play his third tournament of the year in Alcapulco, Mexico – another clay event – but is ultimately looking to compete in the French Open in June. With four months between now and Rafa’s attempt at his eighth French Open title, we will have a much broader sample size to evaluate just how healthy and effective he is. The victory in Brazil was extremely encouraging as Nadal explained that his knee felt fine, but whether it can hold up in consecutive tournaments before the big show in Paris remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the top two players in the world, Djokovic and Federer, will head to Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship next week to tune up for the upcoming French Open. The always-entertaining event at Rolland Garros will be the first Grand Slam since Djokovic defeated Murray in the Australian Open in January. If Djokovic is worried about anyone stopping him from his seventh career Grand Slam, however, it may not be Murray or Federer who should be on the Serb’s mind, but rather Nadal. Nadal has won each of the past four French Opens, and even with a sore knee and probable limited movement on the court, he has to be one of the favorites again come June.
Though Nadal is certainly a possible candidate to win in June – and what a story it would be after coming back from this injury – I would put money down on Djokovic for taking the title. The French Open is the only Grand Slam that the 25-year-old has not won, but I think that may change this year. In fact, more than a few people have predicted a sweep of all four Grand Slams in 2013 for the Djoker. He has already won the Australian Open, and he took Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2011.
Again, it would be impressive to see Nadal win at Rolland Garros, but I think Djokovic is just too powerful for anyone with mobility issues. Following the French Open, I see Djokovic running into his biggest obstacle at Wimbledon if he encounters Roger Federer. Federer has won seven Wimbledons – most recently against Murray last year – and is one of the most dominant players on grass to ever play the game. If Djokovic can out-duel him though, I can’t imagine that anyone can stop him on the hard court at the U.S. Open.
It seems like every year fans consider the possibility of a player sweeping the Grand Slams. Federer has often been a candidate, as has Nadal, but believe it or not, no one has completed the feat since 1969 when Rod Laver did it for the second time in his career. Now, 44 years later, Djokovic has a real chance at emulating Laver’s accomplishment. He just has to get by two of the game’s most storied icons, Federer and Nadal.