Focus on Nadal's return

Spaniard to test his troublesome knee in Chile

Rafael Nadal’s return to action after a seven-month injury layoff will be the focus of attention in tennis in Chile this week.

The 11-time Grand Slam champion has been on the sidelines since he was beaten in the second round at Wimbledon by Czech journeyman Lukas Rosol in late June. Nadal, who will be 27 in June, has been careful to play down expectations. Yes, he still has some pain from his troublesome knees and no, he does not expect to immediately rediscover his old winning ways in his first tournament back at Vina del Mar in Chile, the starter for the claycourt season that climaxes with the French Open in May/June.

“Of course I still feel pain in the knee that sometimes stops me from playing, but you have to start sometime and I am here to try and give my best and hope that my knee comes through it,” he added. “Undoubtedly the clay surface is a little less aggressive on my knee,” he said. “My aim is to compete courageously and hopefully the knee will stand up to it. There is always the possibility that I will lose in the first round after so many months without competing.”

Vina del Mar is an essentially low-key tournament, but Nadal is looking to progressively rebuild his confidence in claycourt tournaments in Brazil and Mexico before heading up to the United States for the Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami on the less unforgiving (for his knees) hardcourt classics.

After that beckon Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and on to Paris. What happens after that on the grass of Wimbledon and the hardcourts of New York depends to a great extent on how his physique and mental fortitude cope with the new challenges. Few of his peers seem to doubt his ability to get back to the top level. “Can’t wait to see him back playing again. The sport will be all the better for it,” said Federer, whose rivalry with Nadal has marked tennis and all of sport for the last eight years. “As far as I am concerned he will still be as difficult to beat as ever.”

Nadal fans will be encouraged by the last time he had a lengthy layoff to rest his knee joints, at the start of the 2010 season. On that occasion, he went on to win all three of the claycourt Masters tournaments and yet another French Open title without dropping a single set, a feat never accomplished before in tennis history. To round off the season, he would also lift the Wimbledon and US Open trophies.

Whether he can repeat that feat, or even get near it, lies a long way down a road that will commence on Wednesday.

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