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Monday, February 11, 2013
A good first step for Rafael Nadal


Horacio Zeballos of Argentina now has something to tell his children, who undoubtedly will savor the opportunity to tell it to their children: Zeballos is one of the very, very few men to face Rafael Nadal in a final on red clay and live to tell about it.

Rafael Nadal
Despite losing in the final in Chile, Rafael Nadal took some important steps in his comeback.

Yesterday, the 73rd-ranked Zeballos not only beat Nadal in the Chile Open final, he did it by virtue of an exemplary bit of role reversal. Nadal is usually the player you count on to bounce back from losing a close first set to eke out a second-set tiebreaker and ultimately win going away. But this time the sneaker was on the other foot, as Zeballos found a way to grind out a win in 2 hours, 45 minutes, winning 6-7 (2), 7-6 (6), 6-4.

The looming question: Is Rafa finished?

Of course I joke.

This was Nadal's first tournament in seven months, the bulk of which was spent in therapy (for his left knee, not his psyche) and rehabilitation following the second major failure of his pins (he also took an extended break to deal with tendinitis in both knees back in 2009). At times during his absence, and even this week during his return, it seemed that a little psychotherapy for Rafa might also have been a good idea.

Nadal's anxiety about his knees has been a conspicuous part of his story since he left the tour after having been upset in the second round of Wimbledon by Czech journeyman Lukas Rosol. This has been no cut-and-dried case of a player suffering an injury, dealing with it and jumping right back into the fray.

Nadal has yet to say that his knee(s) are fine, the situation is under control. Perhaps he'll say (or deny) that upon reflection today because, wittingly or not, he was forced by Zeballos to undergo precisely the kind of test he needs, which is the kind you just can't get in practice or even in doubles competition. And Nadal came up just short.

Was it rust, or is Nadal diminished and/or mentally spooked?

Nadal is scheduled to play two more relatively minor tournaments (Sao Paolo and Acapulco) on his beloved red clay to further test his knees -- and whip himself back into competitive form -- before the two big hard-court Masters 1000 events in the U.S. and, more critically, the European clay-court circuit that culminates at the Grand Slam event he rules, the French Open.

The one thing we know at this early stage in Nadal's comeback is that he is (and has always been) something of a pessimist. He will always downplay his chances (surely you remember all the praise he heaped on Roger Federer as he mercilessly hunted him down and stripped him of the no. 1 ranking?). He's the kind of guy who will tell you he's hardly worthy of carrying your racquet bag and then he'll lay such a beating on you that you'll contemplate destroying every frame in that bag.

This week, Nadal complained that his knee is still giving him trouble, and rather dramatically declaring that it's a "joy" just to be playing again. Yet there he was when the smoke cleared, in both the singles and doubles final.

I don't think Nadal is a sandbagger per se; he's frank, and that modesty is genuine. But I believe he's more comfortable as the hunter than the hunted. And I think he has been so freaked out about the failure of his knees (the obvious weak link in Rafa's otherwise formidable physique) that he really does worry about where his next "W" will come from -- as absurd as that seemed to us as earlier this week we watched him crush a hot, mercurial player in Jeremy Chardy.

OK, so this was 27-year old Zeballos' first ATP tour title of any kind. And it's a bit ominous that Nadal was able to break Zeballos' serve only once, while the winner converted two of seven break points. This was only the fifth singles final Nadal has lost on clay, and it's the first time he has ever lost to a left-hander on that surface. Zeballos, who failed to get by the second round in a main tour event last year, had only played a top-10 player twice before, losing each time.

That notwithstanding, Nadal's first tournament in seven months has been an unqualified success. But Nadal isn't subject to reasonable standards, which is why some questions linger about his psyche as well as his knees.