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Martin Rogers

Weekly Slice: Countdown to Rafa's return

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FIRST SERVE

So, Rafael Nadal's return to the ATP Tour draws ever closer and the battle lines can be drawn.

Not between Nadal and Roger Federer or Andy Murray, it is too early for the pre-U.S. Open mind games. However, speculation over the impact of Nadal's comeback from the knee problems that hampered him at the French Open and kept him out of Wimbledon is about to start in earnest.

On one side of the argument is the school of thought that the Spaniard may never be the same as he was in 2008 and early 2009, when he won three out of four majors up to the Australian Open - plus an Olympic gold medal.

Those in this camp protest that the strain Nadal's all-action game puts on his body will start to make injuries a common theme of his career, slowing his chances of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking from Federer.

The counterclaim is that Nadal's work ethic will ensure he is in peak condition by the time the U.S. Open rolls around and will be poised to resume normal service.

He has always faltered in New York before, usually as a result of end-of-season tiredness. This time, that issue will not apply and he should arrive in the Big Apple fresher than ever.

Federer will be favored to emerge victorious again, while many will see Murray as his most serious contender.

But the rare role of underdog could suit Nadal on this occasion, and he may be able to duck under the radar a little.

Whether you are a Nadal fan or not, few can argue that the powerful left-hander's return is not good for the game.

This is a sport built around stars, and one of the brightest is ready to return.

DROP SHOT

The Hamburg tournament was once one of the best events on the circuit outside of the Grand Slams. But after losing its Masters Series status it has struggled for sponsorship and is fighting dwindling interest. Tournament director and former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich has even entered the doubles in a bid to create some publicity.

CLEAN WINNER

Good luck to Michael Stich, former Wimbledon champion, German hero and tournament director of this week's event in Hamburg. The 40-year-old Stich has teamed up with Mischa Zverev in the doubles in a bid to revive interest in the struggling tournament and has been training hard for several months. We wish him well.

USE YOUR FREQUENT FLYER MILES

Get down to Hoosier country this week for the Indianapolis Tennis Championships, a smart little tournament featuring a respectable field, despite the withdrawal of Andy Roddick. Look out for Americans Sam Querrey and Rajeev Ram, who squared off in the final at Newport and could be on course to meet again.

LAST WEEK'S RESULTS

Castella Swedish Open, Bastad: Robin Soderling
Mercedes Cup, Stuttgart: Jeremy Chardy
Internazionali Femminili di Tennis, Palermo: Flavia Pennetta
ECM Open, Prague: Sybille Bammer

THIS WEEK'S PREDICTIONS

International German Open, Hamburg: Tommy Robredo
Indianapolis Tennis Championships, Indianapolis: Sam Querrey
Banka Koper Slovenia Open, Portoroz: Dinara Safina
Nuernberger Ladies, Bad Gastein: Shahar Peer

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

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