Even at Half Speed, Nadal Still the Man to Beat in Paris

Tennis Champion Rafael Nadal
Tennis champion Rafael Nadal made his comeback to the tour in February after missing seven months with a knee injury. Photographer: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP via Getty Images

Rafael Nadal’s knee injury means he isn’t the same player who won seven titles on the clay courts of the French Open. He’s still the man to beat.

The 26-year-old Spaniard is favored to win and become the only player with eight French Open titles, even though he said his knee is still “not 100 percent.” Although he can practice less than an hour a day, he’s made the final in each of the eight tournaments he’s played since he returned to the men’s tennis circuit in February.

Nadal’s performance since his comeback “speaks for itself,” Boris Becker, a six-time major singles champion, said in an interview. “The way he’s come back as strong as he did, you have to put him back on top. Before his comeback, I was worried if he would come back at all.”

Nadal, an 11-time Grand Slam champion, returned to the tour at a small clay-court event in Vina del Mar, Chile, in February after recovering from a partially torn patella tendon and inflammation in his left knee. Since then, five of his six titles have been won on clay, with one on hard courts, in Indian Wells, California.

“His record on clay is incredible,” U.S. Open champion Andy Murray said two weeks ago in Rome before dropping out of Paris with a back injury. “On that surface he is so ahead of the rest of the pack. Even if he hasn’t played, his level is a long way ahead of the rest.”

French Titles

Nadal, who’s won 41 clay-court events including a men’s record seven French Open championships, came back to defeat unseeded Daniel Brands of Germany 4-6, 7-6 (7-4), 6-4, 6-3 to win his first round today.

Defending women’s champion Maria Sharapova of Russia faces 42nd-ranked Su-Wei Hsieh of Chinese Taipei, while former winner Li Na of China beat Spain’s Anabel Medina Garrigues.

“My comeback has been just a dream,” Nadal said a week before Roland Garros at the Italian Open, where he defeated men’s Grand Slam record-holder Roger Federer of Switzerland 6-1, 6-3 to claim his seventh Rome crown.

Federer won easily yesterday on the opening day of Roland Garros, beating Spanish qualifier Pablo Carreno Busta, 6-2, 6-2, 6-3. Serena Williams, the women’s top seed, only conceded one game against Anna Tatishvili of Georgia.

Nadal’s March victory at Indian Wells -- on his least-favorite surface because of the impact it has on his joints -- was “an incredible achievement,” according to Becker, who is an ambassador for Barclays Plc.

“An injury is going to affect you mentally and physically,” Becker said. “You lack confidence and any sort of match fitness. That’s on the mental side. But on the physical side, you just don’t know whether your knees are strong enough when you are being pushed.”

‘Right Decisions’

The Spaniard is the 8-13 favorite at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc to win Roland Garros. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia follows at 9-4, with former winner Federer the next-best chance at 9-1.

Federer told a news conference two days before the start of Roland Garros that Nadal had taken “all the right decisions,” in his comeback, giving himself enough time to recover.

“He’s healthy, he’s fit, hopefully in no pain,” Federer said. “Can he then also keep it up on other surfaces? That will be the next question for him. Once the clay-court season is over, how is he going to cope with grass and then hard courts after that?”

Djokovic, the French Open top seed seeking his first title in Paris, lost to Nadal in last year’s final 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5. Play had been halted for the night because of rain after Djokovic came back from two sets down to win eight games in a row and go up a break in the fourth set.

Missed Tournaments

“Maybe I could have won if we had continued that day,” Djokovic said in an interview in Rome two weeks ago. “But at the end of the day, it wasn’t to be.”

There won’t be a repeat of last year’s final because the third-seeded Nadal and Djokovic have been drawn in the same half and could meet in the semifinals. Federer, the second seed, is in the opposite half and can only meet Nadal in the final.

Djokovic won in straight sets on clay at the Monte Carlo Masters last month, ending Nadal’s quest for an unprecedented ninth straight title. The Serb has struggled on clay since, losing to 28th-ranked Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov in his opening match in Madrid, and a week later in the quarterfinals of Rome to sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.

After missing the London Olympics, the U.S. Open, the ATP World Tour Finals and the Australian Open, Nadal said he hadn’t set a target in his comeback.

“My only goal before I started to play -- and it’s still my goal today -- is to try to be 100 percent healthy,” he said. “That’s the only thing that worries me. I didn’t forget how to play tennis in seven months.”

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