Best of Three: Breaking down Rafael Nadal's return
For much of a the week he did a convincing impersonation of pre-injury Rafa Nadal, whipping his lefty forehand, sliding around the clay granules of the court, serving his way out trouble. Other times he looked understandably rusty. This was distilled on Sunday. Playing against Horacio Zeballos -- who had fewer ATP match wins than Nadal had clay-court titles -- the defending French Open champion won the first set and looked to be on his way to the title. Then he played a few shaky games, his opponent's confidence swelled and Zeballos won the second set. In the third, Nadal look jarringly drained of force and fell 4-6, 7-6, 6-4.
The pessimists will say Nadal has lost his edge. If he's falling to the likes of Zeballos on clay, we should be concerned. The optimists will judge this a success. Nadal played a full slate of matches -- he was a doubles finalist as well -- and held his own. His knee held up, too. If his stamina and energy level betrayed him in the final set, well, that was to be expected after such a long layoff. The optimists include Nadal. "Everything was very positive," he said after the final. "It's true I wanted to win the final, and it's true I didn't play my best match this afternoon."
The good news: we don't have to bicker. Nadal heads to the Brazil Open in São Paulo next week and the Mexico Open in Acapulco on Feb. 25. Let's reassess after that.
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