Comeback better than Rafa's?

NEW YORK -- Tommy Robredo turned professional in 1998, and Rafael Nadal followed three years later.

The Spaniards had crossed paths long before that and, over the years, become good friends in this business that, at the elite level, is not conducive to long-term relationships. It was fitting, then, that in late January they found themselves in Barcelona, on opposite sides of the practice court. They were scheduled to play the following week in Vina del Mar, Chile, and were trying to see where they stood.

Robredo was returning from surgery on his left leg that had kept him off the ATP World Tour for a year, while Nadal was coming off a seven-month absence due to chronically sore knees.

"He was starting another time," Nadal said, "when I was starting another time. I never had any doubt about Tommy.

"The beginning, when he was coming back, he didn't win a lot of matches in Chile, Sao Paulo, in Acapulco, I was talking with my coach. I said, 'He will be there be there at the end of the season because he's ready to work and a serious player.'"

Well, here we are at the end of the Grand Slam season and, sure enough, the 31-year-old Robredo is not just "there," but in the quarterfinals of the US Open for the first time, on his 12th appearance here. As remarkable a comeback as this is, on so many levels, Nadal's is just as exceptional. He's played 12 tournaments this year, reached 11 finals and won nine titles, including his eighth French Open.

Of course, they're playing each other Wednesday -- eight months after they tested each other (and themselves) back in Barcelona.

"What he's doing is great," Nadal said. "I hope he stops here."

When he said it on Monday, he was smiling.

"I am happy for him because he deserves [it]," Nadal continued. "He wanted a lot to be back."

It was a long, long haul through obscurity. After 14 years as a professional, after more than a decade without an extended break, the game had become a grind. The time off made Robredo realize how much he truly loved tennis. He says he never really contemplated retirement.

His ranking, once as high as No. 5 in the world, had slipped to No. 471 in May. He began his comeback on the Challenger circuit in Italy. He won two titles, winning all 10 of his matches. It was way better than sitting at home and watching his buddies playing ATP events on television. After missing five of six Grand Slam events, he surfaced at the US Open and made it to the second round.

Back in January, Robredo lost three of four matches in Australia before retreating to Spain, where he hit some balls with Rafa and steeled himself for the road ahead. After falling twice in three matches in Chile and Brazil, Robredo finally found his game in Buenos Aires, winning three matches and reaching the semifinals. Two months later, he proved he was all the way back, winning in Casablanca, Morocco -- beating No. 17-ranked Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals and No. 20 Kevin Anderson in the final.

"I think that 'til Casablanca this year I wasn't sure," Robredo said. "After there, when I win the tournament, I just realize myself that I could be able to just enjoy again and try to be back on the top rankings. And since then I'm just believing and believing and believing."

Like Robredo, Nadal was mentally re-energized by his time away from the ATP World Tour.

"I think that motivation [was] the excitement to be back on the tour, the spirit and the passion for the sport," Nadal said. "After a period of time that you were not allowed to do what you really want to do, you are able to come back with very, very fresh mentality, knowing what you have to try to do to be competitive. And that's what I tried.

"It's unbelievable what he's doing after a year without having the chance to play tennis. He's not younger anymore. To be back at the level he's playing, you feel the passion and the love for the sport. That's always a great example for the rest of the players and a great example for kids."

A year ago, Robredo didn't know if his leg would ever be 100 percent again. Now he will be a top-20 player again when the new rankings are released Tuesday.

"You have the doubts, no, that if your body's going to respond, and your tennis, if you're going to get the confidence back," he said. "In the end, in a sport like tennis, you need to be healthy; you need to be also playing good, and also this confidence.

"Yeah, it's an amazing year for me. Hopefully I can keep going because I'm enjoying a lot."