Losing both the singles and doubles finals in Chile matters less to the former world No 1 than how his knee is improving, writes Steve Elling and for good reason.
Rafael Nadal makes the right step forward
After a seamless start, as the week progressed, few folks much noticed that Rafael Nadal showed up in Chile adorned in his traditional body wrap – in two places, not one.
As ever, the Spaniard played in the coloured headband, long his trademark, but he also had a thick strip of white athletic tape below his troublesome left knee. Given the way he had played over the opening rounds of the obscure ATP event, the latter had been fast forgotten.
The former world No 1 was starting from scratch after last playing at Wimbledon last summer, to the point he had been dubbed neo-Natal, since he was taking baby steps on his choreographed comeback tour. Yet there were few overt signs of oxidation as he played in the panoramic seaside village of Vina del Mar.
Then he failed to wrap up the tournament title Sunday, not once, but twice, losing in jarring upsets.
Nadal, who has dropped to No 5 in the world as a result of the knee injury and lay-off, was defeated by Argentina's mostly unknown Horatio Zeballos in the final, losing 6-7, 7-6, 6-4.
Zeballos, the world No 73 at the time, recorded his first championship of any kind. Worse, Nadal then returned and lost alongside partner Juan Monaco in straight sets in the doubles finals. It was a bristling double whammy that few thought possible. Except, perhaps, Nadal himself.
Nadal, who turns 27 this summer, cautioned all along that his three-event clay-court comeback series in Latin America should not be evaluated on scores and results, but how his body held up. After sailing along all week with nary a setback, Nadal hit the wall twice, perhaps from fatigue.
"It was a week when we didn't know how the body would respond, the knee," he said.
"At least we have seen we can compete up to a certain level. It's true I have had good days and bad days that impact on my play."
It was a frenetic week for Nadal, who met with Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, and was the tournament's only drawing card.
"I need more time on court," he said. "The knee is still bothering me, but you have to face adversity with the best possible face and look forward to keep working and enjoy what I like the most, to play tennis."
He added: "I was two points away from winning the title, but I said from first day that the result was not the most important thing, although I would've liked to win. Still, to win four matches in a row is good news for me."
If nothing else, the Nadal storyline has enlivened a largely lacklustre portion of the season between the first and second grand slam events. Nadal will play on clay again this week in Brazil, where he is the lone top-10 player in the field.