It seems so long ago now when each and every of Rafael Nadal's updates on his injury situation that informed us of the lengthening of his sabbatical from tennis was met constantly with feelings ranging from disappointment to disbelief to irritation.
Irritation about allegations of underhandedness purported by "fans" looking for a quick reaction. And in many ways, I for one am thankful that time seems so long ago.
I've always believed that as fans we do a disservice to the players we support and the sport we love by placing high premiums on winning as if it is the only end result in life.
Even we ourselves don't win each and every day—no day goes by when a stockbroker doesn't lose out on a sale,, or a commuter on the bus or train doesn't get muscled out of a seat or a child gets a question wrong on a test—yet we blindside ourselves into setting the standards high for others when even we can't jump them.
I'm guilty of it. I can think of numerous instances when I have berated a player for a perceived lack of effort and written others off because of the absence of actions that fit my definition of the right attitude. It is with this circumspection that I believe Nadal's return to competition needs to be put in the proper context.
A player's profile certainly plays a part on the expectation levels that accompany them wherever they go. In the case of Nadal, given his record on clay, it wasn't unexpected that the expectation on his return to competition at Vina Del Mar was high.
He lost the final of that tournament, and my sense of the general tennis reaction was one of exasperation, which was a little saddening. Of course people will claim that Nadal would have expected to win that title deep down even if he wouldn't have verbalized that view, and they would have been right—but they also would have been wrong.
After seven months without competitive tennis, there was no way Nadal could return perfect, and he hasn't been perfect—far from it. Yes, he defeated David Nalbandian, David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro in consecutive finals, but, as we should all know by now, the end result in tennis isn't always the sum of its parts.
Perhaps the next best thing—second only to the rest his knees got—about Nadal's time away from tennis was that, probably for the first time in his career, he was able to take a back seat and review his achievements and his goals. He got the chance to review where he wanted to be, where he currently was and what others were doing.
The general belief, I think, prior to Nadal's return was that the likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had advanced the game so far in the period Nadal was out that any attempts by Nadal to bridge the gap would involve a steep, slow learning process that would take a number of months.
And even though Nadal won the Indian Wells title, his first title on hard courts since late 2010, that view still holds some water.
One of Nadal's quotes regarding the Indian Wells final particularly struck me:
I started the match playing fantastic, then Del Potro started playing a little more aggressive. In my opinion, I tried to change too early against his forehand. I was playing much too aggressive for my game.
When I was able to calm myself, I began to play better. I started to play a little bit slower; my movement was unbelievable. Then I play a fantastic match.
I believe one of the greatest qualities we have as humans is our capacity for change—to look into the future but also look back and learn more than we knew about ourselves. Nadal's absence offered him that opportunity and competition is exactly what he needs now to act on what he has learned.