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Monday, March 18, 2013
It's on! Rafa is back and hungry for more

By Peter Bodo



Far be it from me to accuse Rafael Nadal of anything as crass as sucker-punching his ATP rivals. I doubt that he even knows the meaning of the word "sandbagging." But has anyone else noticed that he is off to the best start of any year in his career?

Nadal improved his 2013 record to a career-best 17-1 with his three-set triumph (4-6, 6-3, 6-4) over Juan Martin del Potro in the Indian Wells final Sunday. He also broke the ATP Tour record for Masters 1000-level singles titles (he now has 22, one more than Roger Federer) and became the only active player besides Federer to have 600 or more wins.

Rumor has it that Federer was seen in the parking lot behind his hotel furiously banging on his left femur with one of his rackets. For if this is what happens when a top player misses seven months with a knee injury, imagine the potential results if you missed a comparable period with a broken leg!

Granted, Nadal's record during this comeback was built mainly on his beloved clay courts in events of secondary or tertiary importance, while his healthy rivals were slugging it out on hard courts with a more potent field of rivals (including the first Grand Slam event of the year, the Australian Open).

And sure, Nadal lost the first final he played (at Vina del Mar, Chile) to happy-go-lucky ATP No. 39 Horacio Zeballos, who cops to the somewhat slothful hobby of sitting around Argentine beaches drinking mate (an infused, tealike beverage usually consumed through a straw known as a bombilla) when he could be out practicing his tennis.

But after that surprising loss in the first tournament he's played since losing in the second round of Wimbledon last June, Nadal has been on fire. As he pointed out the other day, he's played every possible match available to him since he first set foot on a court again, and it's made him deliriously happy.

We saw how Nadal reacted when he successfully converted match point against del Potro. He slid to the court and lay on his back, his face transported in apparent ecstasy, working his arms like a racetrack railbird trying to wish his horse across the finish line. He's mounted less furious celebrations after winning Grand Slam events, and that tells you just how much this tournament meant to Nadal.

But enough with the drama already. I don't know what more Nadal needs to do to put his mind at rest, but mine is satisfied. His knees are working fine. And is it possible that instead of posing a threat to his career, the lengthy hiatus Nadal took perhaps re-energized it and may yet prove to have extended it?

I mean, the guy has lost one match since his return, and he isn't even going to swing a racket until he has his rivals right where he wants them, slipping and sliding and cursing Nadal on the red clay of Europe. Do you think Novak Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray will lose a lot of sleep in the coming weeks, worrying about the state of Rafa's knees?

I don't doubt that Nadal was deeply anxious about what the future held as he hobbled out of London after losing to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon. I fully believe that in recent weeks all those equivocal, sometimes gloomy cogitations about what lay in store were sincere. What they mostly confirmed, though, is something everyone already knew: This is an obsessive guy who doesn't do "what-ifs" or uncertainty very well. He's undoubtedly suffered, and because he's such a likable, humble guy, we've suffered right along with him.

Week after week, while Nadal has been beating the stuffing out of all comers, we've continually speculated about and worried over his knees and his future. Well, I've got news for you: Nadal might not even know it, but he's never been gone -- not in any meaningful sense, as his results amply demonstrate. Somebody needs to tap him on the shoulder and tell him that, because I'm pretty sure Djokovic & Co. aren't going to be as supportive and compassionate in the weeks to come as they've been so far if Nadal, or the media, clings to this comeback theme.