The doubts were running high at times last week, but Rafael Nadal is looking set to play at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells this week. And that means all of the big four members will be playing at the same event, the first time that's happened since Wimbledon eight long months ago.
Nadal has been the missing piece of the puzzle, with a knee injury keeping him off the tour for seven months until he returned in February. The Spaniard will be arriving in the California desert fresh off an impressive week in Acapulco (with an exhibition match in New York squeezed in) and has made it clear he hasn't lost his mastery on red clay. But now the attention turns to hard courts, where Djokovic currently rules. Here's how the big four have been faring ahead of the season's first Masters event.
Djokovic underlined his early dominance of this season by taking the title in Dubai last week, bringing his record for the year to 12-0 and his winning streak to 18-0 (excluding a loss in Hopman Cup). Playing his first event since winning the Australian Open, Djokovic handled Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych in the last two rounds without dropping a set. On this surface, Djokovic's movement and ability to move the ball around is unmatched these days. And he knows it -- a source of confidence when matches do get close. "I feel I know how well I can play and I know what my qualities are and abilities," said Djokovic.
After winning Dubai, Djokovic took in a Los Angeles Lakers game and met some of the team ahead of taking part in the L.A. Tennis Challenge before heading to Indian Wells, where the golf course will probably be one of his first stops. Never mind, his tennis doesn't look like it needs much practice anyway.
Nadal's 6-0, 6-2 defeat of David Ferrer in the Acapulco final was simply stunning, not so much the win but the astonishingly one-sided score line against one of the very best clay-court players. Even though it came against his friend and fellow countryman, Nadal sobbed into his towel with relief afterward, exulting at such a fine performance just three events into his comeback.
He has two titles and a final so far, and even more encouragingly, his knee has responded better at each tournament. "There were days in Brazil when it was really bad, and in Chile, during one match as well. But here, it didn't hurt. It just bothered me some," he said in Acapulco. "This was the first week where I could run with complete freedom and no limitations."
Now comes the first test on hard courts, the most difficult surface for the knee, and at what will be his fourth event in just over five weeks. He is in the difficult position of needing to play matches but also needing to save his knees as much as he can, a balancing act that will also come into play over the question of whether to play the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami a few days after Indian Wells ends.
Another tournament, another tough loss for Federer, this time a semifinal defeat in Dubai against Tomas Berdych after missing three match points. "That's just disappointing right there, because the match was in my racket," said Federer. "You do all the right things for so long, and then at the end you've got to explain why you didn't hit two shots decent, you know."
Berdych is one of the handful of players capable of overpowering Federer from the baseline and sensed weakness in his opponent's net-rushing strategy. "That's just show[ing] that he definitely doesn't want to play the rallies with me from the back," Berdych said. "When he doesn't feel that he has it in his hands, you know, that he can control the ball, he can do whatever he wants, then, yeah, that's what he like."
Earlier in the week, Federer had a different theory about his net approaches, laughingly suggesting that his pink shoelaces made it too easy for opponents to see him coming. "Definitely not camouflage," he joked.
Less amusing for Federer is not being able to defend his titles in Rotterdam and Dubai last month, and he now must try to make another title defense at Indian Wells. If Federer fails, he could lose yet more ground to Andy Murray, who is quickly encroaching on Fed's No. 2 ranking.
Playing a reduced schedule this year will also hurt Federer's ranking prospects, but speaking to reporters before Dubai, he suggested he might play more next year. "I need to make sure I have enough time off, so that when 2014 comes I am in a position with options, which I almost wasn't this year to a degree," he said.
Murray hasn't played since the Australian Open, choosing to train with coach Ivan Lendl in Miami instead. Not much has been heard from him since an appearance at the Queen's Club media day three weeks ago, except for the announcement that he is buying a boutique hotel near his hometown. It's where Murray's brother, Jamie, was married before it closed last February and was put up for sale. Murray plans to reopen the business and hopes it will help boost the local economy.
It wasn't long before potential names began pouring in, with Jumurrah and the Murriot among the suggestions.
Nadal, meanwhile, has purchased two hotels in Mexico, so these two may now have something else to compete over apart from their bitter PlayStation rivalry.
But it's the on-court rivalries that will be the focus over the next week and a half. Not only does Nadal's return complete the big-four summit, his comeback prospects will add a little mystery to this now-familiar cast of favorites.