Rafael Nadal: What to Expect from Spaniard in Return to Action at Abu Dhabi

Patrick Clarke@@_Pat_ClarkeCorrespondent IDecember 11, 2012

SITGES, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 26:  Rafael Nadal attends a press conference for 'Champions Drink Responsibly' by Bacardi on November 26, 2012 in Sitges, Spain.  (Photo by Robert Marquardt/Getty Images)
Robert Marquardt/Getty Images

Tennis star Rafael Nadal is set to make his long-awaited return to the court this December, and with him fans can expect to see and hear plenty of emotional fist pumps and shouts from the hot-blooded Spaniard.

The 26-year-old Nadal confirmed on Tuesday that he will play in an Abu Dhabi exhibition tournament at the end of the month. Nadal will join Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at the Mubadala Tennis Championship (Dec. 27-29), which serves as a warm up to January's Australian Open.

Nadal has won the tournament twice in the past, inspiring these comments from the 11-time Grand Slam champion on his Facebook and Twitter accounts:

Can't wait to get back on court in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month. I won the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in 2010 and 2011 - would love to get my hands on the trophy again this year!

Despite his eagerness to return to action, it's hard to predict which Rafa will surface in Abu Dhabi in a few weeks. Will we see the Nadal that dominated the field at the French Open last spring, or will we see the Nadal that we last saw limp out of Wimbledon in the second round nearly six months ago?

I'd say fans are going to see something in between.

The hard courts of Abu Dhabi are going to provide a solid test for Nadal's knee, but the exhibition-type atmosphere won't demand nearly as much energy from Rafa. Although we should expect him to arrive even more focused than usual considering the length of his recovery process.

But given the stiff competition Nadal will face right off the bat, and the tournament's unusual format, fans should not expect a deep run to the final from Rafa. 

Assuming that both Djokovic and Murray earn Day 1 byes, Nadal would have to defeat a fellow Top-10 player in either David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych or Janko Tipsarevic on Day 1 before then defeating either Djokovic or Murray in a Day 2 semifinal just to reach the Day 3 final.

That's a mighty task to ask of Nadal given that he returned to training as recently as Nov. 20 according to the Associated Press' Harold Heckle via Yahoo!.

As far as realistic expectations are concerned, look for the rest factor to pay off for Nadal in his first match on Day 1. I like him to advance to the semis comfortably. But that's when things get tricky. Rafa has struggled against Djokovic on hard courts, winning just 5-of-16 matches against him on hard surfaces. Meanwhile, the world No. 3 Murray is coming off a 2012 U.S. Open championship.

Another factor is Nadal's lack of consistent success on hard courts. Only two of his 11 major championships have been won on hard surfaces, his last hard court Grand Slam title coming at the 2010 U.S. Open.  

Therefore, with a limited amount of time to prepare, fans shouldn't be surprised to see Rafa's run end on Day 2. Of course if he can win on Day 1, he'll still earn a spot in Day 3's consolation match regardless of what happens in the semis.

But a third Mubadala title isn't what truly motivates Nadal to play this winter.

Winning the Mubadala Tennis Championship won't make or break Nadal's career, because he will ultimately be judged by what he does in Grand Slam tournaments. Simply coming out of Abu Dhabi healthy will be a victory for Rafa.

Sure, an exhibition victory would be nice, but the real reason Nadal is playing is to build some confidence and return to form before the tournament that actually counts, January's Aussie Open.

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