Madrid - Rafael Nadal who is set to fly to Chile on Thursday to return to the ATP tour seven months later is a different man: he has a new racket, a new approach to his business interests and a lot of questions open regarding his tennis.
Can the former world number one go back to being the player he once was?
As soon as Nadal confirmed his return to the tour after a long injury break, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) proceeded to test him for doping four times in two weeks, according to sources close to the player. Overall, Nadal was tested “six or seven” times ahead of his return, ITF president Francesco Ricci Bitti told dpa.
However, since he recovered from a double knee injury and started to play again in November, the Spaniard has spent most of his time trying to adapt to the new tool of his trade: Babolat's Aeropro Drive racket.
Like most players, Nadal is conservative when it comes to his play; he does not like to change what appears to be working. But that is precisely what coaches are there for.
“Uncle Toni put pressure on Rafa to change. If you want to be better, you have to take risks,” Eric Babolat, the owner of the firm that makes the racket Nadal has been playing with since age 12, told dpa.
“I don't agree with what you're saying, but I'll give it a try,” Babolat said Nadal usually tells his uncle-coach.
According to the Frenchman, the new racket and new strings give “more power and more control” to the Spaniard's shots.
“More top spin, he already has a lot of that but he wants more,” said Babolat.
The racket manufacturer admits it is “a nightmare for rivals,” usually overwhelmed by the height that Nadal's strokes attain due to this top spin effect.
By the end of the year, the racket could be even closer to science fiction, because the plan is to put on it a chip that will collect data about every stroke.
“It could become a habit, something usual after sport: sitting with your friends to compare each one's technical data,” Babolat says enthusiastically.
And while Nadal adapts to his racket ahead of the Vina del Mar, Sao Paulo and Acapulco tournaments he is set to play in February, his business activities are taking on a new dimension.
Carlos Costa, a former top 10 tennis player who has been Nadal's manager for years, left the agency IMG, the world's biggest in the field, to create a family company with Sebastian Nadal, Rafael's father.
The move is just like one that Swiss tennis star Roger Federer and his manager, Tony Godsick, undertook a few months earlier.
Godsick left IMG and now manages along with Federer all the business generated by the former world number one. There are no longer any commissions to pay or anything to debate: they have control of everything.
The same thing is to happen with Nadal from now on.
Once he has chosen his racket and set his business interests on a new track, questions focus on the winner of a record seven titles at the French Open: at 26, will he be able to replicate the form and results of his best years? Several top commentators have doubts.
“I don't think he necessarily needs time to be Nadal, but I think he needs some time for the other players to think of him as the old Nadal, because I think players lose a lot of respect: not respect for him as a person, but respect for his level,” Mats Wilander told dpa in Australia.
The Swede, a three-time French Open winner and former world number one, is sure that even if his name is Rafael Nadal, “he's still an outsider” in Paris this year, with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Federer the men to beat.
“This is the year of and Novak and Andy's chance to win the French, and Roger's already won it, but it's obviously his chance too,” Wilander said.
Australian former tennis star Pat Cash agrees.
And so does tennis legend Andre Agassi, another former world number one, who thinks Nadal cannot be expected to return to top form before 2014.
“I found whatever time you take away from the game you need that time to double to be fully where you were when you left, that's my experience,” Agassi told Australian daily The Age in a recent interview regarding Nadal.
He was speaking from experience, after crashing in the ATP rankings and then climbing back up.
Wilander is convinced that Nadal will take a while to fully recover his form.
“If he wins Roland Garros this year... I'd be admitting that I was completely wrong, because I can't imagine that he wins Roland Garros this year,” he said.
Current world number one Djokovic is not so sure and bewares of Nadal.
“He's always the favourite on that surface and he's the ultimate player to beat on clay,” he said.