Rafael Nadal is back to his old self. He whips his top-spin heavy forehands all over the court, then flattens them out for winners down the line. He moves his feet quicker than lightning to get in position for laser winners. And he chases down every ball imaginable to keep points alive and frustrate his opponents to no end.
This is a good thing.
Tennis, and especially clay tennis, needs Nadal, needs his big-name attraction. As Nadal proved for four consecutive years, no one is close to him when it comes to dominating on clay. Nobody — not even Roger Federer .
Sure, the World's Greatest Of All Time won his first French Open a year ago to cement his legacy, but it needs to always be mentioned that he didn't have to face a certain Spaniard to claim the his most elusive grand slam. That victory almost needs an asterisk.
A year ago, when Nadal fall to Robin Soderling in the French, all was clearly not right with him. This was confirmed just weeks later when he had to, begrudgingly, withdraw from defending his Wimbledon title because of tendinitis in both knees. Knowing the competitor Nadal is, he must have been in a great deal of pain.
Nadal returned a couple weeks later and played the rest of the year, but he was almost an afterthought at the big tournaments. For a while, he fell out of the No. 2 slot in the world — he had been No. 1 early in the year, following his Australian Open victory over Federer — behind Andy Murray . And he got doused in three sets by eventual surprise U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro .
Then at the Aussi Open in January, Nadal had to retire during a match against Murray. Yes, he withdrew from a second straight major where he was the defending champion. Obviously, all was not right with the six-time grand slam champion. Doctors told him to take two weeks off.
The 23-year-old heeded their advice, and since then he's felt great. Today in Paris, he dispatched of a desperate, I-don't-have-many-more-majors-to-play Lleyton Hewitt in three sets. Nadal was all over the court, chasing down every ground stroke Hewitt hit that looked like a winner. By the end of the match, Hewitt had the look of a man who knew he had simply been destroyed by a superior player.
There is no doubt, as Nadal moves on to the Round of 16, that when healthy he is one of the best two players in the world. The question remains, of course, whether he can keep playing at a high level without wearing down his knees. His tennis schedule has traditionally been super busy the entire calendar year with few breaks for rest. Perhaps a slight lightening of the schedule is needed for Nadal to remain healthy and playing his best tennis for several years (remember, Federer is 28 and still the world's No. 1).
Whatever the case, Nadal remains an absolute joy to watch, especially on the clay of Roland Garros. And no one is better than him on the surface. It seems a long time ago, but in the 2009 final Nadal obliterated Federer in three quick sets then beat him in the epic Greatest Match of All Time in London a month later.
Tennis fans have been fortunate enough to see Federer and Nadal share a court several times over the last few years, something I, at least, missed greatly during Nadal's difficult last 12 months. Now, thankfully, the quick, powerful Spaniard appears to be back at the top of his game.
Which, of course, means trouble for the rest of the men's professional tour.