Fans were thrilled to see Rafael Nadal back on the court this week. Unfortunately, it will be a little longer until he is the competitor of old.
After winning his first three singles matches at the VTR Open with relative ease, the Spanish star fell to Horacio Zeballos in the finals 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.
This tournament was the first time Nadal was able to compete in a match since Wimbledon. A knee injury and a stomach virus held him out of action for around seven months.
It is understandable that he will be a little rusty after this much time off.
However, the tournament in Chile was a perfect opportunity for him to show that he is back to full strength.
The field was relatively weak—Zeballos was the No. 73 player in the world—and the tournament took place on clay. Coming into the week, Nadal had a 254-19 record on clay, good enough for a .930 winning percentage and 36 career titles.
Even if he was able to perform to half of his ability, Nadal should have dominated the competition.
The fact that he struggled is certainly not a good sign for the 11-time Grand Slam champion.
Primarily, Nadal struggled at defending the serve. Zeballos won 77 percent of first serves and 71 percent of second serves. Overall, Nadal could only win 25 percent of his returns.
This is something that he has excelled at over the years. He always seems to be in great position, and his conditioning helps him stay on top of all shots.
The fact that he was unable to succeed in this area is a point of concern. It either means that he is not completely healthy, or that he is still rusty from his long layoff.
Fortunately, there is still plenty of time until the French Open. The tournament at Roland Garros does not start until May 26, which gives him over three months to get back to his old self.
Considering he has only lost once in 53 career matches at the championship, the expectations are pretty high.
Hopefully, Nadal will be able to work though his current issues, because the field will not wait for him. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have each won Grand Slam titles since Nadal last stepped on the court.
Until he is able to prove his worth in these smaller tournaments, there is no reason to believe he should be a favorite to win a major one.