I am often asked how Rafael Nadal has managed to return to the tour so strong when he hasn’t played for so many months.
I respond to that with two things. Firstly, Nadal is an exceptional player, like Kim Clijsters was, or even Justine Henin – that’s to say that they’re at a different level from their peers. They possess such a margin over them that they have this capacity to hit the ground running the moment they return.
Then I add that these players have the winning habit - and they've got an enormous amount of experience to draw on. Therefore, their game gets back in order a lot more quickly than it would with a player at a lower level, who carries more doubts about his or her ability. Great champions are that much surer, and they rediscover their level quicker.
It amuses me, actually, that women’s tennis is so often criticised on this basis. We’ve seen champions head into retirement, like Henin or Clijsters, and come back almost immediately at the top. Players and journalists alike have taken that to mean that women’s tennis is weak, that women therefore have it easier when they're trying to get back to the top.
Yet when we look at the men, we see the same phenomenon! For me, this confirms that it’s not a question of the standard within game, but only the capacity of certain exceptional players to return at the highest level.
At the time of the Belgian duo’s comebacks, I pointed out that the pair returned to the sport with huge success simply because they had already been great champions. They were players who had dominated the game, and that allowed them to find that level again.
You can say the same of Nadal, who missed eight months of playing on the tour. What’s more, he hasn’t played any tennis – or any sport at all given his knee injury. Since his return he’s lost only two matches, as of his win on the clay in Barcelona, and he has reached six finals on two different surfaces against all the best players.
The explanation is simple: you have to concede that Nadal is an exceptional player in an exceptional generation. Before the arrival of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Nadal collected all the key titles on the tour with scarcely an exception. It’s rarely happened before – even in the Pete Sampras/Andre Agassi era, there was no dominance on the scale of Federer and Nadal. These two go beyond the norm.
Added to that, the Serb and the Scot have shaken up that duopoly. They dominate a top eight in which it is difficult to make further ground. Even Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are well-established behind them, but are scarcely expected to see them upset the top four.
So for Nadal to so simply rejoin that elite group says something about the player and the man.