NEW YORK -- When he was introduced to the raucous crowd at Madison Square Garden, Rafael Nadal bounded down the steps behind the end zone, navigated a few dicey yards behind the barricade around the court
and stumbled as he attempted to make one final step down and onto the court. His left foot momentarily buckled, and as he scrambled to steady himself, you couldn't help worrying about the comfort and safety of those tendons and ligaments holding together his fragile left knee.
In the end, an amiable Juan Martin del Potro prevailed 7-6 (4), 6-4 in the BNP Paribas Showdown on Monday night.
It was only an exhibition match, but Nadal reportedly took home $1.5 million -- a good year for many touring professionals. Still, it was the first look at that knee stopping and starting and stressing all over a hard court. It was taped with a few swaths of white athletic tape -- and one suspects this might be the look for the rest of his career, however long that is.
After sitting out for seven months, Rafa returned one month ago to the minor clay-court circuit in South America. He nearly ran the table, going 12-1, winning two titles and losing in the final at Vina del Mar, Chile, to, of all people, Horacio Zeballos.
Last week in Acapulco, though, Nadal looked dialed in, handling the sometimes formidable Nicolas Almagro in the semifinals, and, surprisingly, No. 4-ranked David Ferrer in the final -- the latter by the beatdown score of 6-0, 6-2. In all, Nadal won all 10 sets he played there and looked, well, like the guy who has won seven of the past eight titles at Roland Garros.
At least at this early juncture, it looks like his decision to circumvent surgery for a torn patellar tendon was a good one. But sliding and gliding with the soft cushion of clay underfoot is one thing. Playing six matches in a week and a half on the hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami -- in back-to-back events -- is another.
Although the first match between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka featured some cutesy left-handed points and even a guest appearance by Azarenka's boyfriend, Redfoo, of the band LMFAO (he could not get a serve in with the requisite two chances), it was lacking in competitive tenacity.
Rafa and del Potro seemed comfortable taking big cuts at the ball, and wayward shots regularly careened into the stands. In one early point, Nadal went up for a difficult backhand overhead and really torqued it. At 2-all in the first, del Potro sent an arching lob over Nadal, who turned and sprinted at what looked like full speed. He didn't land the ball in the court, but he bumped into the back wall with sufficient force to leave the impression -- at least in the near-heat of battle -- that he wasn't overly concerned with his knee.
Naturally, clowning ensued -- between-the-legs shots, balls off the head soccer-style, little touch rallies at the net -- but the knee was never an issue.
Going forward, Rafa has a decision to make. Does he still care about being the No. 1-ranked player -- something that demands reasonable success on hard courts? Or would he rather extend his career and focus on clay-court events and Wimbledon, where the forgiving grass (which these days plays a little like clay) has allowed him to win two titles (2008 and 2010) and reach the final on three other occasions?
As my colleague at Tennis.com, Peter Bodo, observed Monday night, "You can make a nice little living playing the clay circuit and Wimbledon."
Nadal turns 27 at this year's French Open, and it's a good thing he managed to win titles at the Australian Open (2009) and U.S. Open (2010) when he did. The reality is he may never win another hard-court major.
He recently floated it out there that he might not appear at the upcoming tournament in Indian Wells. He has consistently blamed hard courts for the condition of his knees and clearly dislikes playing on the surface. He didn't exactly confirm whether he will play there later this week.
He was asked if he was nervous about the tournament.
"No, not nervous," Rafa said. "I know the knee is not 100 percent yet. I can only do all the right things to be ready. Then, you know, if the knee doesn't do well, what can you do?"
In Acapulco, he said, for the first time in his comeback he played "without limitations" in those last two matches. There is, apparently, no guarantee that this state will continue with any consistency.
Del Potro, who overcame a serious 2010 wrist injury, was supportive.
"We are so glad to see him play again," the Argentine said. "I hope he will be 100 percent soon."
Rafa's last match on a hard surface before Monday night? March 29, 2012, more than 11 months ago. Nadal beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals at Miami, but needed three sets to do it. The next morning, an hour before his semifinal match with Andy Murray, Rafa withdrew, saying his knee was not up to the task.
Nadal opened the 2012 season with four matches on hard courts in Doha, then seven at the Australian Open. In retrospect, it is fair to wonder whether that spectacular and exhausting 5-hour, 53-minute match against Novak Djokovic in the final caused some cumulative damage that didn't fully surface until Nadal lost in the second round at Wimbledon. That triggered his seven-month sabbatical.
A season -- a career -- without hard courts, other than mandatory appearances in Melbourne and New York?
It might be the smartest play of (the rest of) Nadal's career.