The last time we saw Rafael Nadal in a Grand Slam, he was being replaced by the man he was supposed to be: a young, aggressive player with a volatile go-to shot that made everyone in the game awe at his skills.
But instead of Nadal ending Roger Federer’s five-year U.S. Open run and adding to his dominance over the greatest player ever, we welcomed Juan Martin del Potro to the New York winner’s circle and crowned him the best contender against Federer.
For del Potro, the 21-year-old Argentine, it was an earlier start to his Grand Slam collection than most had predicted. But, for Federer, it marked a time when someone not named Rafa maneuvered inside his head, disrupting the mental game of the best ever.
This season, no player’s 2010 trajectory could impact the men’s game more so than Rafa – the ripped, 23-year-old Spaniard who owns a 13-7 record against Federer.
If Rafa recovers from the second half of 2009 and intensely competes even with patellar tendinitis hampering him – although he says he’s healthy – he could battle or overtake Federer and Co. for almost every Grand Slam.
We could be spoiled with more classic Federer v. Nadal matches, with greatness trickling out of every shot and every point.
Tennis’s boxer would be back.
But if his knees pester him, if the bandages multiply and the pain increases, the lack of Rafa creates an open race for the titles, or as much of an open race as you can have with Federer still No. 1. Not to say that continued parody would be a bad thing, either, but an injuried Rafa only enhances Federer’s advantage, as we’ve seen.
With almost every other contender to Federer, we can at least pretend to think we know what we’ll be getting this year at the Grand Slams.
Novak Djokovic: a finals appearance, maybe even a title, but no dominating like a healthy Nadal could.
Andy Murray: an early exit, a couple of semifinal appearances and maybe even a final, but probably no championship.
Nikolay Davydenko: a solid three sets. For now, that’s about it.
Andy Roddick: see Murray.
It is del Potro who offers the best chance to replicate what Nadal has done. But to expect del Potro, after one Grand Slam triumph, to ease through the competition as only Nadal and Federer have done of late might be asking too much, too soon.
What Nadal will attempt this year will be something we have seen few times in this sport: a champion trying to rehabilitate his body while playing, and along the way, attempting to reclaim his dominance.
That is fitting, though, because much of what Nadal has achieved on the tennis court we had never seen before him.
With most everyone else this year, we at least have history to help us predict.
But with Nadal, we just don’t know.