If big-time tennis is elephant hunting, then Rafael Nadal is ready to put on the safari clothes again. His appearance in Monday night's Madison Square Garden exhibition against 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro marked his highest-profile appearance since felled by a left knee injury in June.
But Nadal looked plenty fit and mobile (though he wore a large wrap on the knee) in this step from three midlevel clay court events in Latin America last month -- he stormed through those by winning 12 of 13 matches and two titles -- to the possibly daunting challenge of the elite Indian Wells (Calif.) event next week.
Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray all will be waiting in Indian Wells, but the real test for Nadal will be his first time in a year on hard courts for a tournament -- possibly a surface he will choose to play on less often.
He has just begun to "feel free to run to the ball," he said. "I really can't predict the future. I have to see how the knee will answer in Indian Wells next week.
"I go day by day. After several months with a lot of pain in my knee . . . We'll see."
Before his February return from treating acute tendinitis to competition in Acapulco, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Vina del Mar, Chile, Nadal had not played since his startling second-round loss at Wimbledon to 100th-ranked Czech Lukas Rosol on June 28. Tennis insiders began to wonder if Nadal's hard-driving physical game, based on relentless stalking, was punishing him as much as it hurt his opponents, and putting his career in jeopardy.
He is still only 26, an 11-time major-tournament winner and often in the conversation of "best of all time." But in 2009, creaky knees caused him not to attempt to defend his Wimbledon title. And this time, the knee trouble, according to his coach and uncle, Toni, "was the worst of all."
Nadal reminded that his 2009 injury sabbatical was "totally different;" he returned to action for that summer's hard-court season. This time, it was "sad," he said, to be home in Majorca, Spain, "working every day, trying different treatments, and to see not the best results in a short period of time, that's not nice. Not easy to accept sometimes."
The slide to No. 5 in the rankings, because of his long absence, is not a problem. Nadal never has been comfortable discussing the outsized expectations stirred by his successes. (He is only the seventh man in history to win all four Grand Slam events.)
"I'll go week by week," he said, "as I did in the past. But it's a new situation. More than ever, I have to do it this way."
Hard to say if the sport's big names out there should be worried.