Mentally he’s refreshed.
Physically he’s rejuvenated.
As for his game — with an ATP -leading eight titles this season — he’s still Rafa.
After taking a month off to rest his troublesome left knee following a stunning first-round ouster at Wimbledon, Rafael Nadal returned last week with an impressive run to the Rogers Cup title in Montreal.
Nadal needs that momentum to secure a ninth ATP title this week. The Spaniard has never won the Western & Southern Open in Mason in eight appearances, five behind Tommy Haas’ active streak of 13. He’s gone as far as the semifinals twice with consecutive appearances in 2008-09. Nadal, 13-8 at the W&S Open, is scheduled to open his tournament tonight on Center Court against qualifier Benjamin Becker of Germany.
“I always thought during the seven months (off) that I will work hard as much as I can to be back strong,” said Nadal, whose balky knee also shut down his season for seven months after the 2012 Wimbledon. “When I come back, go outside in every court around the world and watch the stadium full, big crowds supporting me, it is more and more special than before the injury happen.”
His path to playing in the title match on Center Court on Sunday — in front of 11,435 spectators no less — could involve a quarterfinal match with Roger Federer and a semifinal with Andy Murray. Federer and Murray have combined to win the last six W&S Open titles and seven of the last eight.
Nadal, ranked No. 3 in the world, seems up for the challenge. He started playing again in February with three small clay-court tournaments in South America and Mexico, winning two. He’s won four ATP 1000 tournaments since — the most prestigious ATP tournaments outside of the four Grand Slams — and goes for his fifth at Mason. He also won his fourth straight French Open title in June, his 12th Grand Slam title.
The only glitch in his season was that Wimbledon loss to Belgian Steve Darcis, who was ranked No. 135 in the world at the time.
“I am ready to compete. I am happy the way I am playing,” Nadal said.
“I think that motivation, the excitement to be back on the tour, the spirit and the passion for the sport (drove me). … After seven, eight months without enjoying that feeling, you come back and feel that, and that gives you a lot of positive energy.”
Beating players like Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world and four-time W&S Open finalist, is also a confidence booster. Nadal toppled Djokovic in the Montreal semifinals 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2) and routed Canadian Milos Raonic 6-2, 6-2 in the finals.
“It shows you how amazing Rafa has been coming back after seven months off,” said American Mardy Fish, who is working his way back from heart problems and was eliminated in his first-round match Monday. “To do what he’s done is just not normal.”