The Game Has Changed

Rafael Nadal may be ready to return to tennis. But is tennis ready for him?

It’s hard to believe Rafael Nadal has been gone from the game for so long. So long, in fact, that he may not recognize it when he returns this December. When Nadal was eliminated this June in a shocking second round upset at Wimbledon, he left tennis a damaged, weakened version of himself. But while his deteriorating knees proved no longer reliable, the one thing he could be sure of was his position in the tennis hierarchy. Whatever security he or anyone else felt during that relatively stable time is now a thing of the past, as the game has changed. So with tennis now in a veritable state of flux, how will Rafa fit into this unique, alien dynamic? Let’s break it down player-by-player.

Roger Federer: Even with Nadal out, the Swiss Maestro faced plenty of solid opposition on his improbable path back to World No. 1. After one of his best performances of recent memory in a grueling semifinal battle with Djokovic in Wimbledon, Federer capped off the grass season with an unbelievable resurgence into relevancy with his 17th Grand Slam title, his first since the 2010 Australian Open. Federer disappointed at the Olympics in a loss to Andy Murray and was bounced early in the US Open by Tomas Berdych. It’s difficult to make a reasonable argument for Federer winning a major in 2013, and Nadal’s presence won’t make things any easier. While Federer’s best chance at 18 is clearly in London, the level of competition is unprecedented and has little tolerance for Federer’s recent inconsistency. With his semifinal elimination at the Shanghai Rolex Masters coupled with Djokovic’s triumph over Murray, the point differential between No. 1 Federer and No. 2 Djokovic will be inconsequential, as the battle for the top spot will ultimately be won by whoever doesn’t slip up last, which, as recent history has shown, will typically be Roger. If Nadal takes the French Open again and Murray continues to play at his current level, Federer may find himself once again at No. 3 behind Djokovic and Nadal.

Novak Djokovic: It seems like Novak has returned to Earth this year after his exceptional 2011 season. His game hasn’t lost its aggression, but it isn’t as sharp as it was just one year ago. He’s more prone to mentally checking out for a game or two and he’s a lot quicker to go to the racket smash. His troubles with Murray in their past two meetings (most notably in the US Open final) have exposed flaws, and although he will remain the top threat in the game, he is no longer untouchable. Nadal’s return could put the final nail in the coffin of the brief but potent “Djokovic Era” and prevent him from picking up some majors that would otherwise be his. Once Nadal settles in, Djokovic may be struggling to fight off the Spaniard and his emerging rival Andy Murray. Look for Novak to finish 2012 at No. 1 after a tough race with the new and improved (but error-prone) Roger Federer. Consider him the favorite in Australia this winter.

Andy Murray: Essentially the pre-2006 Peyton Manning of tennis, Andy Murray came into this season with the reputation of a perennial choke artist. Flash-forward to now and people are calling for a Big Four. Although Murray’s performances in the Olympics, US Open, and even his loss to Federer in the Wimbledon championship were impressive and showed a new, exciting side to the Brit, he needs at least one more grand slam to pad the resume before he can make a solid case for elite status. Upon Rafa’s return, Murray won’t find any easy passes in semifinals – no one will anymore – as Nadal will restore some much-needed balance to the tournament draws. His recent success against Djokovic in the US Open, however, seems to suggest that Andy may have figured out Djokovic’s weaknesses. That, or Djokovic is slipping. Either way, it spells good for Andy Murray this season. With the French Open out of contention and Wimbledon looking to be a toss-up, Andy’s best chance for a major in 2013 is on the hard court, where his speed and noticeably improved athleticism will surely flourish. Thus, his success will hinge more on the play of the game’s biggest hard court threat Novak Djokovic than it will on Rafa.

Rafael Nadal: Rafa picked a good time to get out. He’s never been a huge contender in the end-of-the-year hard court tournaments, and with his knees in the condition they are, any hard surface play would only have exacerbated his injuries. Expect him to take some time to settle in mentally, although don’t assume he won’t be in peak physical form upon return. Nadal is not the type of person to come unprepared. If he comes to play, expect him to compete at full capacity. Missing both the Olympics (where he would have carried the flag for Spain) as well as the US Open this year was a bold testament to both the severity of his injuries as well as his sheer dedication to recover properly and thoroughly. This absence was an investment for the long-term, and he understood that every day of it was necessary if he wanted to continue to play the physical, demanding game that has allowed him to thrive. Nadal will be more than comfortable competing at the top level by the time Roland Garros rolls around, so expect his record 8th French Open title this June. With the level of play from Djokovic, Murray, and Federer, Nadal may end the year with only his French title to show, but he will overtake Andy Murray in rank and, if it weren’t for his modest points total due to his withdrawal from every tournament in the past 4 months and counting, he would be a strong contender for the No. 2 spot.

photo- Karl Hab

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