Nadal returns to chase Federer yet again

Martin Rogers

When Rafael Nadal steps into New York at the end of the month, he could be forgiven for thinking he is touching down on his personal version of square one.

The tennis world will welcome Nadal back to Grand Slam competition at the U.S. Open with gusto, as he completes a men's draw stacked with multiple potential champions.

But things will be different for the Spaniard this time around, with the gaze of Flushing Meadows spread more widely this year rather than being trained exclusively upon Nadal and Roger Federer.

Rewind 12 months and Nadal was the hottest topic of conversation as he sought to complete a remarkable 2008 season by adding the U.S. Open to his French and Wimbledon titles and Olympic gold medal.

That his challenge came undone with an exhausting loss to Andy Murray in the semifinals appeared to matter little. Nadal ended the year as world No. 1, and despite Federer's eventual triumph in New York, it was the younger man who reasserted his authority by winning the Australian Open and looking primed for a big 2009.

"I felt like I had this year under control," Nadal said. "I had a very good start to the year and carried on my form from 2008. It was disappointing."

The "it" to which Nadal refers is a knee injury that hampered his hopes of winning five straight French Opens at Roland Garros, where he lost to eventual finalist Robin Soderling in the fourth round.

The injury kept him out of Wimbledon afterward, preventing him from defending the title he had won courtesy of his epic triumph over Federer in last year's final.

Indeed, his absence seems to have given Federer the impetus he needed to regain his lost mojo. The Swiss master collected the French title for the first time in his career this year before backing it up at Wimbledon, and he even got married and became a father in the time between Nadal's French Open defeat and his return to action in Montreal last week.

Now it is Federer who is once again the main man in tennis with Nadal, who spent five years in second in the official rankings, being forced to look upward once more. The landscape now is somewhat different than Nadal left it when he went into his physically enforced exile.

Murray's victory in Montreal lifted him above Nadal in the rankings, and the emerging Brit looks to be moving ever closer to his elusive first Slam. Andy Roddick also is in fine form, while Novak Djokovic is sticking around and Juan Martin del Potro continues to improve.

"It's only a number, just a number change," Nadal said. "For me, the ranking doesn't change a lot my perspective and my goals. I'm just as happy as I was three days ago when I was No. 2, and [as I was] before when I was No. 1.

"In the end, what makes me happy is be ready to play and enjoying playing tennis. If it's like this, if I can compete with normal conditions, I am very happy to be here."

The absence was tough for Nadal, who thrives on a heavy workload in training and a grueling competitive schedule. Many believe it is that willingness to push his body which has slowed him at the U.S. Open – a tournament in which he has yet to reach a final, much less win – where he often has arrived looking worn out and then played accordingly.

The next few months will be as much a test of Nadal's nerve as for that recovering knee. Some critics already argue that his golden period came only when Federer was suffering from mononucleosis, that his ascension to the top of the tennis world deserved an asterisk.

Fair or not, Nadal needs to prove himself all over again.

His first steps back in Montreal showed some signs of encouragement, but also cause for concern. At times in the early rounds, he looked to be at his awe-inspiring best.

But del Potro's big hitting proved too much in the quarters, the lanky Argentine blasting winner after winner with his ferocious groundstrokes en route to prevailing in three sets.

"It was disappointing to lose," Nadal said. "But I feel like I am moving in the right direction and I am looking forward to New York. I feel fresher than normal; I don't know if that is a good or bad thing but it feels different this year."

Nadal is certainly hoping for a different outcome. The road back to No. 1 is stretched out in front of him, and victory at Flushing Meadows would bring the final destination that much closer.