Early days for Rafa

  • By: Tim Clement
  • Last Updated: February 18 2013, 15:11 GMT

Rafael Nadal's first title since his seven-month lay-off is undoubtedly a positive sign, but any suggestions that the Spaniard is back to his best would be very premature.

Rafael Nadal: On a long road to recovering his best form
Rafael Nadal: On a long road to recovering his best form

Sunday's Brazil Open victory over former Wimbledon finalist David Nalbandian was certainly a significant step for the 11-time Grand Slam champion.

Indeed, there is little more you can ask of him than to beat what is put across the net.

Coming runner-up in Vina del Mar before collecting a 51st career title in Sao Paulo is probably the sort of return Nadal's team would have expected, having gauged his levels closely ahead of his return.

However, for those of us left in shock at the sight of the Spaniard cut down in his prime at Wimbledon, having displayed the form of his life during last year's clay swing, were left slightly underwhelmed by the nature of his comeback.

Prevailing in three sets against Carlos Berlocq and Martin Alund en route to his triumph in Sao Paulo offered up as many negatives as positives.

While winning deciding sets was obviously a positive indication in terms of his condition, the fact that he was even in such situations certainly serves as a concern.

It is fair to assume that he would be out of his depth in the company of his three great rivals right now.

Nadal's return of serve seems to be the area of his game which has declined most significantly, struggling to make any real inroads on the first serves of Berlocq and Alund - alarming given the once impenetrable nature of his defensive game.

The signs were certainly better against Nalbandian, earning eight break points and taking five of them, but the Argentinian was far from his best, making a meagre 50 per cent of his first serves.

So what next for Nadal? The Spaniard remains in his cocoon of comfort on the clay for next week's ATP 500 event in Acapulco but faces a step up in terms of competition, with David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro in attendance.

The 'King of Clay' boasts imperious records against his compatriots, leading Ferrer 16-4 with five straight wins while he has beaten Almagro in all eight meetings.

Nadal will be seeded below Ferrer for the first time since 2005 having slipped down to fifth in the world during his absence.

It will be interesting to see how the event in priced up by the bookmakers at the weekend, with Nadal surely set to be the favourite despite his unconvincing form.

Looking ahead to the French Open, while other bookmakers are now favouring Novak Djokovic, Sky Bet have kept the seven-time champion at the head of their betting.

His odds have drifted, however, out from 5/6 to 11/10, while he is all-but written off in the end of year number one betting at 16/1.

Any chance of that will surely be ended if he fails to take part in the American hardcourt swing, with 720 points to defend in Indian Wells and Miami.

No decision will be made until a thorough health review has taken place after Acapulco, but it would be a brave move to jeopardise his condition and confidence by embracing the hardcourts next month.

Having failed to win a single title on hardcourts since 2010, it is difficult to foresee him improving on semi-final appearances in the States, so regaining fourth spot before the European clay swing looks nigh on impossible.

While it is results which the 26-year-old will ultimately be judged on, he will be far more focused on performances and protecting his knees during these early stages of his comeback.

It was always to be the case that such a physically intense player would be heavily handicapped by such a lay-off, but patience is now key having spent his career at full throttle.

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