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Thursday, February 14, 2013
Catching up with the big four

By Kamakshi Tandon
Special to ESPN.com

The rest of the big four weren't in action last week, but it wouldn't have mattered either way -- no one was going to steal the tennis spotlight from Rafael Nadal as he began his long-awaited comeback.

Rafael Nadal

Despite a six-week delay, Nadal's return from a right knee injury was always going to be the most anticipated season debut of the year.

It had been seven months -- or to use the newly popular measure, 222 days -- since he had been upset by Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon. Since then, Nadal's knee has had the most fuss raised about it since Nancy Kerrigan's, thanks to all the conflicting reports and repeated delays in the Spaniard's comeback.

So with a firm date finally set, media and spectators descended on the usually sleepy resort of Vina del Mar last week.

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal's return to the tour in Chile had mixed reviews, but overall it was a pretty good start.

Why did Nadal choose to return there? The timing was right, and so presumably was the reported seven-figure guarantee. Plus, it was a small 250-level event on his beloved red clay, a good way to ease back into competition.

He had undergone a bit of a revamp, armed with a new racquet, new clothes, new shoes designed to lessen impact on the knees, new haircut, new watch and a new management arrangement. But otherwise he was still very much the same old Nadal, just a little rusty.

At the end of the week, there was good news and bad news for the top-seeded wild card.

Good news: He made the final in both singles and doubles and came within two points of winning the singles title.

Bad news: He ended up losing both, fading a bit in the third set of the singles while his opponent, Argentine Horacio Zeballos, stepped up.

Good news: There were flashes of his usual formidable self, suggesting that the old Nadal is still there, somewhere.

Bad news: He's not all the way back yet, hitting a lot of shots too short and admitting that his legs aren't quite as strong as he would like.

Good news: The knee didn't seem to affect him too much. Bad news -- it still hurts, though the pain is supposed to ease in the next few weeks.

Nadal also did plenty of press during the week, including a long interview with French sporting newspaper L'Equipe as well as the usual post-match obligations. Some of the nuggets:

He isn't worried about the knee: "For three weeks & all the ultrasounds I've seen are perfect. In fact, my left knee is magnificent compared to the other one. I know by playing again I'm not risking the tendon popping. & So no anxiety, even if the knee continues to hurt me."

He isn't focused on results -- for the moment: "Here, the result is the last thing that's important. If everything goes well, I'll obviously have other goals in two months. That's what I aim for, to be 100 percent to attack Monte Carlo and the clay tournaments in Europe."

On his schedule: "It depends on the knee. If it holds up, I don't have the intention to change my calendar and play more on clay than before. Why? Because to be first, second, third in the world, you have to play and win on hard."

On Djokovic and Murray being the rivalry of the moment: "It's not unfair. It's the truth at the moment, no? They are two super players who were in the final of the last two Grand Slams. [But &] eight months ago I was in pole position to be No. 1. Don't forget too quickly. Now I'm going to try to insert myself in the 'Djokovic-Murray era.'"

Gains from the week: "A week ago we didn't know how the body would respond. At least now I know we can compete at a certain level."

What was missing: "I'm lacking reaction speed, lacking energy, lacking power in the legs to lengthen points."

Will feeling the sting of defeat turn out to be a spur? He'll have plenty of chances to test his stamina in the weeks ahead -- Nadal is playing both singles and doubles in San Paolo this week, and faces a stronger field than last week.

After a week off, he's then scheduled to compete in Acapulco, the biggest of the three events.

Since returning, Nadal has also been asked for his take on two hot topics -- drug-testing and the stricter enforcement of time limits between points. He told L'Equipe he was tested nine times while sidelined (three blood and six urine), including four in the previous two weeks.

Having complained about the inconvenience of testing in the past, the Spaniard seems to have shifted on this topic, probably both because of the Lance Armstrong revelations and the speculation he has faced about the reasons for his layoff. He called for more transparency about testing results so he wouldn't have to listen to "stupid comments without proof," and said he would have no objections to being tested more frequently.

On the between-points rule, Nadal acknowledged that he was notoriously slow, but felt the rule should not be applied strictly during long, tough matches like his Grand Slam finals against Novak Djokovic. Rallies would be shortened and the quality of play would suffer, he said.

With his injuries in the backdrop, Nadal also weighed in once again on the predominance of hard courts on the tour.

"The ATP has to start thinking about ways to lengthen the players' careers. I can't imagine football players playing on cement, I can't imagine any other sport involving aggressive movements such as tennis being played on such aggressive surfaces such as ours. We are the only sport in the world making this mistake, and it won't change," he said in San Paolo this week.

Andy Murray and Ivan Lendl
Andy Murray has been spending time with coach Ivan Lendl in Miami.

Andy Murray

Murray, on the other hand, won't be on court again for a few weeks.

After reaching the Australian Open final, he isn't playing anything until Indian Wells, choosing instead to spend extra time training in Miami with coach Ivan Lendl.

But the Scot did make a quick return to Britain in between, appearing at Queen's Club to promote his participation there this summer.

Among the various subjects he was asked about during the day's media tour was Nadal's comeback.

"The expectation will be high and people will expect him to do things straight away but it could take a number of weeks and months before he's back to his old self again," predicted Murray. "But he's been practicing for a month and half and was pressing for the Australian Open before he got sick.

"Providing his knee doesn't have a setback he will win some matches in South America and if he's physically OK by the French Open he will be in good shape."

Murray was also asked about drug testing, having recently been one of the most vocal in calling for stronger measures. This time, he not only supported more funding for the anti-doping program but also became the first top player to publicly commit to putting his money where his mouth is.

"If it means taking some of the money out of the players' earnings then that's what we have to do," he said.

The world No. 3 says he'll be taking another break to train after Indian Wells and Miami, skipping Davis Cup in April to get ready for the clay season.

"It's a surface that takes me a long time to get used to; it's not a surface that comes naturally to me," he said. "It's a surface where I had problems with my back last year and I had to take a pretty solid amount of time off during that season."

The goal is to give himself the best possible shot at the French Open. It's been his weakest Slam, but Murray won't rule himself out of contention.

"Stranger things have happened in tennis than a player in the top four or five winning the French Open," he said.

Djokovic
Immediately after winning the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic headed to Belgium for a Davis Cup tie.

Novak Djokovic

Djokovic has been laying low for the last few days, but then again, a well-earned rest was in order.

The Serb won his third Australian Open in a row and just hours later left to start preparing for Serbia's Davis Cup tie that weekend.

Once there, he had to deal with what he initially described as the "worst" clay court he'd ever played on, a leaky roof and a courtside board that fell on him while he was signing autographs.

Last Wednesday was relatively uneventful by comparison. Accompanied by his mother and his girlfriend, Jelena Ristic, he visited a Belgrade school and donated 50,000 euros through his foundation to build a playground for students. But according to Serbian press, Djokovic cited illness in canceling a planned Friday appearance at another location.

His next tournament will be in Dubai later this month.

Roger Federer

Federer has been the quietest of all since the Australian Open, but that now changes as he returns to action this week in Rotterdam.

The tournament website even posted a log of the defending champion's six-hour publicity tour on Monday, which involved trips into the city, a public practice session with fellow pro (and huge fan) David Goffin, not to mention the usual round of interviews.

One of the first issues at hand was, naturally, Nadal's comeback.

Federer said he hadn't watched him play and had only photos to go by.

Federer
Roger Federer returned to the courts this week in Rotterdam.

"He looked good & nice shirt, still a left-hander," joked Federer, whose backhand has suffered plenty against Nadal's big lefty forehands. "I was hoping he came back as a right-hander, maybe, but he didn't."

"I'm happy to see him back and playing on the tour," Federer added. "He seems to have good energy. I was surprised he lost a final against a player ranked outside the top 50.

"I'm sure he got a lot of information about his game last week. He knows now how much strain he is putting on his body and how he is dealing with it."

And once again, drug testing came up. "I didn't get tested on blood after the Australian Open and I told the responsible people over there that it was a big surprise for me," said Federer. "But there also will be more funding needed to make all the tests possible and the Grand Slam tournaments should help to finance that as it is in their best interest to keep the sport clean and credible.

"A blood [biological] passport will be necessary as some substances can't be discovered right now but might in the future, and that risk of discovery can chase cheaters away."

Federer's break came at the expense of Davis Cup as he chose once again to miss the first round. With its top player missing, Switzerland fell to the Czech Republic in a tie that featured the longest match in Davis Cup history.

Perhaps that's why he sounded a little contrite as he reflected on his absence. "Davis Cup is always difficult and I don't take that decision easily. I don't feel good when I see the doubles team play seven hours and then lose. That was one of the worst things for me," he said.

But he also made no commitments to upcoming ties. "I hope I can play more in the future, but it's been tough the last few years. I also have a family and you have to understand that as well," he said.

He is choosing to play this week, however -- also for a reported seven-figure fee -- and his draw has cleared a little after Mikhail Youzhny and dangerous newcomer Jerzy Janowicz exited in the first round. The tournament's second seed is Juan Martin del Potro, who lost to Federer in last year's final.

Federer's performance isn't under the same kind of microscope as Nadal at the moment, but he'll still be looking for good signs about his game to follow up that semifinal loss at the Australian Open. But there was nothing of the sort for practice partner Goffin -- he lost 6-0, 6-0 to Jarkko Nieminen in his first match.