A healthy Rafa is back on track

The bulging biceps are hidden now, with a more traditional sleeved shirt replacing the trademark vest top, but still there is no doubting the physical toughness of Rafael Nadal.

The world No. 1 ended 2008 with his glorious and spectacular season tinged slightly by concerns over his health. At the U.S. Open, Nadal looked spent in his semifinal defeat. He was forced to miss the season-ending championships and the Davis Cup final to recover from a knee injury. The Spaniard’s remarkable summer, which culminated with a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Beijing, can be held responsible for the dip in energy reserves in New York.

But there is no question that he is at full strength again now. Nadal’s second-round opponent, Roko Karanusic, had no answer and was swept aside 6-2, 6-3, 6-2. Different shirt, same old Nadal.

With that hulking frame and pounding ground strokes that squeeze the sap out of opponents’ legs, physicality defines Nadal’s game. If the 22-year-old’s gifts carry him to many more Grand Slams titles, though, he must enter the argument over which players count as all-time greats – a Pete Sampras, a Bjorn Borg and from this era, a Roger Federer.

Nadal has claimed four French Opens and won at Wimbledon last year in an epic battle against Federer. Already, he must be considered a true icon of the sport, and frighteningly, his game is still evolving.

Federer, who hopes to match Sampras’ tally of 14 Grand Slam victories in Melbourne, won three Slams before the age of 23. Nadal has five and doesn’t turn 23 until June. There are concerns that Nadal’s all-action game will take a critical toll on his body and possibly curtail his career.

Coach and uncle Toni Nadal has already taken steps to combat this, though, meaning Nadal now steps into court quicker on hard surfaces, enabling him to finish points earlier. That tactical ploy could help save Nadal’s legs and extend his adventure on top, a journey Rafael Nadal believes will put him firmly among the sport's pantheon of legends.

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