By Barry Janoff
March 10, 2013: After seven months away from the tennis court to rebuild a left knee ravaged by tendonitis, Rafael Nadal began his quest to reclaim the world's No. 1 spot on the right foot.
Nadal, who entered the 2013 season ranked No. 5 in the world, reached the finals in his first match back, the VTR Open in Chile on Feb. 10, where he lost to Horacio Zeballos. He then won titles in each of his next two matches, the Brazil Open in Sao Paulo on Feb. 17; and the Abierto Mexicano Telcel Mexican Open in Acapulco on March 2 against David Ferrer, ranked No. 4 in the world.
And in his first test on hard court in match play since the Sony-Ericsson Open last March-April in Miami (losing to Andy Murray in the semi-finals), Nadal looked relatively smooth, defeating Ryan Harrison of the U.S., ranked No. 73, in the second round of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. on Saturday (March 9), 7-6, 6-2.
Nadal was not tested at all in the third round on Monday when his opponent, Leonardo Mayer, withdrew due to a back injury. Nadal's fourth-round quarterfinals match is scheduled for Wednesday.
"Two weeks ago, I didn't really know if I would be playing here, so I am happy to be here," Nadal said after the match against Harrison. "I feel fine. My physical performance needs to improve. My movements need to improve."
Still, Nadal, the holder of 11 Grand Slam titles and the gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, was not ready to commit to his plans beyond this week in Indian Wells, the first major U.S. event of the year, (which runs through March 17).
"I cannot predict how my schedule will look this year. I have to see how my knee reacts and how it feels at Indian Wells [on a hard court] " Nadal said during a press event in New York on March 4 prior to an exhibition match against Juan Martin Del Potro in Madison Square Garden. "When I decided to play again, I didn't know how well I would be to this point. But my knee feels better and I have won two matches and played well. So, for me, that is encouraging."
Prior to the friendly BNP Paribas Showdown in New York, during which he defeated Del Potro in two sets, Nadal was last seen playing competitive tennis in the U.S. at the Sony Ericsson Open (since renamed the Sony Open). And his last Grand Slam title was at the 2012 French Open at Roland Garros in Paris.
During the summer, his knee degenerated to the point where he lost in the second round of Wimbledon to 100th ranked Lukas Rosol. He then was forced to withdraw from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the U.S. Open and all other scheduled events. He fell in the ATP men's rankings behind (in order) Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Ferrer.
During his rehabilitation period, Nadal was able to maintain his roster of marketing partners. He even did some work, including a hidden-camera campaign for PokerStars.com in which he pretended to be a hotel clerk who happened to be a Rafael Nadal look-alike. He earns about $25 million a year from endorsements from companies including Nike, Bacardi, Kia Motors and Armani.
In December, he left global management firm IMG to form his own company.
"I was sad that I couldn't keep playing," Nadal, 26, said. "I wanted to, but my knees wouldn't let me. During [my rehabilitation], there were times when I didn't know what was going on. How long it would take me to return. But I worked out at the gym, I had different treatments. I had the support of my family and friends."
"The challenge now is to play well at Indian Wells and go week by week. I am not yet looking at the French Open, at Wimbledon, at the U.S. Open. I want to be there. But I want to play as I did before."
Ultimately, working with his coach (and uncle) Toni Nadal, he reached a level of confidence that led to his return to competition. "I feel much better now. I can run to every ball."
Nadal has won more than 93% of the matches he has played on clay during his career, including the French Open seven times and the two titles he has earned in 2013. Indian Wells will be a test of his knees on a hard court, which, Nadal feels, could help to determine his plans for the rest of the year. Of particular interest will be how he fares against the likes of Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Ferrer. The five men have not been in a match together since Wimbledon last year.
"I knew [before taking seven months off] that I could play well on clay, but winning the two tournaments was a big thing for me," Nadal said. "A confidence builder. The challenge now is to play well at Indian Wells and then go week by week. I am not looking yet at the French Open, at Wimbledon, at the U.S. Open. I want to be there. But I want to play as I did before.
"I want my knee to recover 100%," he stressed. "Then I can become more ambitious about my goals."
Nadal Comeback Hits NYC, US; Marketers Follow
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