|ESPN.com: Bodo||[Print without images]|
|Juan Martin del Potro will face Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Showdown.|
Rafael Nadal's match record for the year is a sterling 12-1. He has the same number of wins as No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and while one of undefeated Djokovic's wins was at a Grand Slam event, Nadal also has two titles -- and a bonus final -- on his résumé.
In Acapulco, Nadal crushed one of the toughest clay courters of this era, yielding just two games to No. 4 David Ferrer. Ferrer was the three-time defending champion at Acapulco, and he had a 19-match winning streak going there before his good buddy Rafa squashed him like a bug.
In fact, Nadal slashed and vamosed! his way through the entire Acapulco draw without losing a set. "I played a great match against one of the top players in the world," Nadal said afterward. "(He's) a specialist in clay who did not look like himself out there. He had a bad day."
But then, No. 4 Ferrer tends to have bad days, at least when he meets the three men ranked above him -- or his pal and undisputed capo of the Spanish contingent in tennis, Nadal.
By virtue of all the tennis he missed during his seven-month layoff, Nadal is down to No. 5 in the rankings. So he's not doing too badly for a guy who keeps talking about his troublesome knees as if he were on his last legs. On Monday night, tennis aficionados in Madison Square Garden and an international tennis audience will get their turn to examine Nadal and render their own diagnoses.
Nadal will meet Juan Martin del Potro in half of what is fast becoming an annual exhibition tradition, Tennis Night in America, aka the BNP Paribas Showdown. The second half of the card features Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the two women who utterly dominate their division of the sport -- and who could be on the verge of jump-starting an intense and interesting, if short-lived, rivalry. I say "short-lived" only because Serena is 31, even if she's nowhere near ready to throw in the towel.
This appealing program is all made possible by the fact that most of the players are heading for Indian Wells (where the big combined event begins in the middle of next week), and they can easily build in a quick overnight stop in New York City.
During his just-completed, successful three-tournament swing through the secondary markets of the clay-court world, Nadal kept trying to defuse expectations. When he wasn't busy beating proficient clay-court players like they were government mules, he was wagging his head and issuing doleful reports on the continuing pain in his knees. As late as the beginning of last week, he expressed some "should I stay, or should I go?"-type reservations about even playing at Indian Wells.
The guy Nadal will be playing Monday night has problems of his own. Del Potro, who upset Roger Federer in the final to win the 2009 U.S. Open -- has been spinning his wheels against the top players. While he made a great comeback of his own from a wrist injury that knocked him out for most of 2010, Delpo hasn't been able recapture his former ability to dominate and blast his top 10 peers off the court.
In some ways, the women's match is more compelling.
Williams and Azarenka have waged three-set wars the past two times they've met. Both matches were finals: at the U.S. Open back in September, and just a few weeks ago in Doha.
Azarenka won that last one, but she was still unable to stop Serena from taking away her No. 1 ranking just a few days later. Still, I don't expect these women will end up rolling around on the court at the Garden, scratching at each other's eyes and pulling out hunks of each other's hair. It is, after all, an exhibition at which everyone is meant to have a fun time.
That goes for Nadal and his knees, too. So all those hawkeyed armchair physicians who attend or tune in on Monday are unlikely to learn much of any value. Things probably won't get interesting in that regard until Nadal has to perform under duress on the hard courts of Indian Wells he has come to dread.