Saturday, 16 March 2013

50 Shades of Tennis




Tennis is a sport where players are largely expected to conduct themselves with a certain degree of dignity and grace. Only that isn't always the case and has often led to many controversial moments that have provided plenty of drama and entertainment. On Understated Relevance we take a look back over the past few years at 50 of the more memorable moments that make up the many shades of tennis.

1. We start off back at the 2005 Australian Open during the burgeoning rivalry between Lleyton Hewitt and many of the top Argentinian players. Hewitt's antics were grating on Juan Ignacio Chela and eventually the Argentine let out his frustration in the form of a mouthful of flem aimed in the Australian's direction. The look on Hewitt's face was one of complete surprise and shock. Hewitt won the match in four sets but Chela would gain a measure of revenge a year later by reversing the defeat.


2. The Argentina/Hewitt rivalry spilled over into Davis Cup later in the year when Guillermo Coria met Hewitt in Australia in a match that can best be described as feisty. This encounter had everything in terms of gamesmanship and intimidation. Once again Hewitt's ability to rile his opponent's was in evidence as Coria mimicked Hewitt's celebrations and took aim at him with a smash. Hewitt won the rubber but Argentina won the war by winning the tie.


3. After a stunning display during the 2006 Madrid Masters Tomas Berdych knocked out Rafael Nadal in front of his home fans in straight sets. Having been annoyed by some calling out by the crowd during the match Berdych silenced the crowd both literally and figuratively with a finger to the lips. Nadal didn't approve and made his feelings known to the Czech at the shake of hands.

"Very bad, that was very, very bad" Nadal told Berdych who didn't understand the commotion. In the next round against Fernando Gonzalez the entire crowd booed Berdych from the first point to last and gladly celebrated his exit.


4. At the 2007 Australian Open Tommy Haas took us into the mind of a professional tennis player. From a soulless existence to the heights of positivity, the few minutes spent with Haas at the changeover was a case study in split personalities. The German eventually saw off Nikolay Davydenko having given himself the required pep talk.


5. Marat Safin provided his own narration at the same Australian Open during his match with Andy Roddick. Unable to comprehend why the umpire would want to get involved in overruling some tough calls the Russian gave the umpire a piece of his mind. Safin would go on to lose the match in four sets.


6. The beginning of the friction between Robin Soderling and Nadal became apparent during Wimbledon 2007. As Nadal was about to serve the Swede was still rummaging through his bag to get a new racquet. A clearly perturbed Nadal made his body language clear for all to see at his annoyance of the delay. To which Soderling responded by mocking Nadal's famous tugging of his shorts much to the amusement of the crowd and the Spaniard's displeasure. Nadal would go on to win the match in a tough five setter.


7. It's never nice to be hit in the face with a tennis ball but perhaps Liezel Huber's reaction to Nadia Petrova was unwarranted to say the least. As Petrova came over to apologise for what clearly seemed like an unintentional occurrence, Huber admonishes her and orders her away. In the meantime Svetlana Kuznetsova provides a helping hand with a bag full of ice and sage medical advice in the form of "breath". The Russian duo lost the match, possibly fearing an even worse reaction from Huber had they won.


8. Not happy at having to wait what he claimed was 20 minutes (it was actually closer to 10 minutes) for Paul-Henri Mathieu to receive a medical time-out before his next service game, Mardy Fish proceeded to reveal that he was going to "beat his f***ing ass after the match". Not only did Fish not beat Mathieu's ass after the match, he lost the match itself in deciding set at the Madrid Masters in 2007.


9. Andy Roddick features a number of times amongst the "50 shades of tennis" and his first appearance in our list occurs during the 2008 Australian Open. Furious at the umpire over a series of incidents Roddick delivered a monologue in the umpire's direction. The breaking point being the loss of a point on a shot Roddick chose not to play that was called out but that hawk-eye ruled in. Roddick was in the wrong but that didn't stop him unleashing on the umpire.

"Did you go to school until you were eight years old? I think you quit school before you were ten. Stay in school, kids. Otherwise you'll end up an umpire!". Roddick's stay in Melbourne didn't go beyond this match as Philipp Kohlschreiber took him out 8-6 in the fifth.


10. Israel has grown a reputation as one of the more hostile environments for Davis Cup or Fed Cup action but that didn't scare Anna Chakvetadze. Not only did the Russian comfortably dispose of Tzipi Obziler, she made sure to let the crowd know she was enjoying it while doing so. Russia won the tie and advanced to the next stage of the Fed Cup 2008.


11. In a tight encounter late into the third set the frustration of losing out on a long rally was too much for Mikhail Youzhny to handle. The Russian attempted to rearrange his own face by mercilessly smashing his racquet into his own face with extreme force on multiple occasions. Unsurprisingly the incident drew blood as a shocked crowd attempted to take in what they had just seen. Amazingly Youzhny went on to win the match at the 2008 Miami Masters against Nicolas Almagro. God knows what he would have done to himself had he not won? Kids, DO NOT try this at home.


12. Roger Federer didn't take too kindly to the noises coming from Novak Djokovic's entourage during their 2008 Monte Carlo encounter. So much so that he told them to "be quiet" in dismissive fashion as Federer rubbed out an out call in favor of the Serbian to replay the point. Federer quieted Djokovic's entourage further by winning the match in straight sets.


13. Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro had met before they reached the professional ranks on the juniors tour and their meeting at Rome in 2008 was akin to two enemies in a school playground. Having not taken too kindly to del Potro hitting the ball at him during a point, Murray decided to exaggerate his shouts of 'Come on!' to rile the Argentine. At the changeover del Potro had a few things to say about Murray, which included bringing Murray's mother Judy into the dispute, from there Fergus Murphy had his hands full. "You wanna speak about my mum again?" Murray says to del Potro like you would in the schoolyard. Del Potro was forced to retire one game into a third set that could have seen further sparks fly.


14. Maria Sharapova had enough calls of "Allez" going in Dinara Safina's favor at the 2008 French Open so decided to yell out an "Allez" of her own after a stunning point. Only Maria added a little emphasis to make her point to the French crowd. "Allez up your f***ing ass!". By the end it was Safina who triumphed much to the delight of the Parisians.


15. Del Potro was taking his trash talking to greater heights after Argentina had secured their place in the 2008 Davis Cup final after victory at home against Russia. Asked if he had a message for Nadal, del Potro told the jubilant crowd that Argentina would "take his pants down", in reference to Nadal's continual fidgeting with his shorts before serving. As it turned out Nadal missed the final through injury and Argentina were shocked by the Spanish team in a stunning upset. Ultimately it was del Potro's pants that were taken down in many respects and the Spanish players and fans had no problem reminding him of that.


16. Flavia Pennetta got into it with anyone from the French crowd during 2009 Fed Cup play that wanted to know. Facing match point Flavia's gesticulations to the umpire and crowd are quite clear and don't need explaining. She would go on to save match point and win the match in three sets as Italy routed France 5-0 in the tie.



17. Radek Stepanek isn't a favorite amongst most players and Fernando Gonzalez didn't take too kindly to being held up during his service games. When the opportunity presented itself the Chilean unleashed his fearsome forehand and struck Stepanek where the sun doesn't shine. Stepanek softened the blow by winning the match.


18. It's not often you see a player enraged about a call going their way but that's exactly what happened when confusion reigned between Andy Murray and Fergus Murphy during Monte Carlo 2009. Serving to win the match Murray was sure a Davydenko shot had gone long but Murphy disagreed with the mark. Murray turned away in disgust only to soon realise the mark Murphy had outlined instead was also out. Davydenko could only laugh in amusement at the other end of the court. One point later and the match was over in the Scot's favor.


19. One of the most infamous incidents in the world of tennis occurred at the 2009 US Open when Serena Williams was given a point penalty facing two match points against Kim Clijsters for threatening to kill a line judge. It was a shocking end to a much billed encounter, but it wouldn't be the last time Serena was involved in controversy at the US Open.


20. Serena Williams wasn't the only multiple Grand Slam champion to lose their cool during that US Open. Roger Federer's outburst during the men's final against Juan Martin del Potro after the Argentine took his time challenging a decision was indicative of how much pressure del Potro was putting him under. In the end that pressure told as del Potro ran away with the fifth set to win his maiden Grand Slam title.

"I wasn't allowed to challenge like after two seconds, the guy takes like ten every time. How can you allow that stuff to happen? Do you have any rules in there? Stop showing me your hand, okay? Don't tell me to be quiet, okay? When I want to talk, I talk, alright? I don't give a s*** what he said. I just said he's waiting too long, don't f***ing tell me the rules." The most amusing aspect of the entire exchange might just be the mellow music that is playing loudly in the stadium while Federer vents.


21. If you thought fiery exchanges were only limited to professional competition you were wrong. During an exhibition doubles for charity during early 2010 the simmering feud between Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras boiled over with both exchanging words at each others expense. Sampras even went full pelt at Agassi and hit the target. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal looked decidedly uncomfortable during the entire situation but for the viewer it was better than any soap opera on television.


22. Vera Zvonareva has an awful record against Sam Stosur and having lost all nine games of the 2010 Charleston final against the Australian - Bepa was ready to blow. Her anger was taken out on her racquet and an innocent couch. Things didn't improve much for Zvonareva as Stosur eased her way to the title.


23. Fernando Verdasco was in complete control of the 2010 Nice final just before the start of the French Open against Richard Gasquet. Sensing Gasquet needed their help the home crowd decided to get into it with Verdasco and throw him off his game. They succeeded to a level that no one could have anticipated given the commanding lead the Spaniard had. Verdasco completely lost it and spent most of the latter half of the deciding set in a running abusive dialogue with the crowd. Fernando made sure to tell the crowd they were the worst fans in the world amongst many other derogatory statements. Gasquet won the title in the tie-breaker.


24. Nadal and Soderling met again at Wimbledon 2010 but this time it was the umpire rather than the opponent that drew Nadal's ire. Already a set down Nadal was forced to face break point after a poor ruling by the umpire to award Soderling the previous point which had been overruled on hawk-eye. Amidst his just tantrum Nadal announced "I don't want to play. Call the supervisor, I don't want to play like this. Pascal, that's unbelievable." Nadal did play and saved break point in brilliant fashion before going on to win the match.


25. Dinara Safina is very particular about where the balls are before she's about to serve. And she let the ball kids know that to the fullest extent during Beijing 2010. "Why you no listen?" Dinara tells them. They didn't have to listen to her in the next round as Zvonareva dumped her out of the tournament.


26. Nadal once again felt like he was on the wrong end of a call involving hawk-eye at the 2010 World Tour Finals in London against Tomas Berdych. Much like his reaction at Wimbledon Rafa intimates he's so aggrieved that he doesn't want to play on and goes straight to the tournament referee. Once again Nadal overcomes his disappointment to win the match.


27. Kader Nouni has been involved in a number of controversies and he was so again as Agnieszka Radwanska met Lucie Safarova in Doha in 2011. Radwanska was almost at the point of tears in the face of Nouni's comprehension of the situation. On this issue Nouni had a valid point but Agnieszka just couldn't believe what was happening. Safarova would go on to win the match in straight sets.


28. A different shade of Vera Zvonareva on this occasion in Pattaya against Daniela Hantuchova in 2011. No racquets or couches at risk in this instance rather the covert skills of the match umpire. The umpire believed she lip read Bepa saying some not-so-nice words after Daniela saved break point while serving for the match, only Zvonareva knew the umpire couldn't speak Russian and failed to understand how the umpire could reach such a conclusion. After a discussion with the tournament referee the point penalty ruling stood despite Bepa's protestations. That resulted in match point for Hantuchova and a point later the match was over.


29. Ernests Gulbis is back in the tennis news lately after a rich vein of form but arguably an even more impressive performance came during Monte Carlo against Milos Raonic in 2011. After being called for a double bounce that he didn't agree with Gulbis went on a measured tirade at the umpire at the changeover.

Gulbis: "I have a racquet, I have a feeling, I wouldn't say if it wouldn't be two bounces. I have no problem losing a point. If somebody cheats me a point 30-all? Come on - it's a joke! We have a discussion or it's a monologue from my side? Can we watch a match, replay afterwards?" Umpire: "No, I have nothing to tell you. I understand what you said and I already told you what I saw. So now we just move on." Gulbis: "I'm going to give you a present, a DVD, a copy, a slow-motion of that shot." Umpire: "Time."


30. Federer in action again this time in a hostile atmosphere in Madrid against Nadal. Federer was convinced the umpire had seen the wrong mark and he wasn't shy in telling him so - "You DON'T see it good."


31. Roddick has chewed a few umpires out in his time but perhaps no verbal volley was as scathing as the one he served to US Open tournament referee Brian Earley. Having waited hours for seepage on the court to be repaired the American was furious to find nothing had changed when he and David Ferrer were called back on to court. Earley looks completely helpless as Roddick gives him a very public dressing down that was aired live throughout the world.


32. The moment Serena Williams questioned whether Eva Asderaki was beautiful on the inside after being given a hindrance penalty in the US Open final against Sam Stosur. After the point penalty cost her a break of serve to start the second set, Serena, with the aid of the crowd, got back on serve before the next changeover. And she held no punches during that changeover reminding Eva that "we are in America last I checked". Stosur didn't seem to care that the match was being held in America and stunned Serena in straight sets amidst more controversy during a Serena Williams US Open defeat.


33. Maria Kirilenko may look innocent but she knows a thing or two about a hindrance every now and again. Leading 4-2 in a deciding set against Chanelle Scheepers in Guangzhou, Maria picked up a hindrance violation and failed to win another game in the match.


34. I've often wondered why more players don't just walk out on press conferences given some of the excruciatingly asinine questions they get thrown at them time after time. Well, Roddick decided enough was enough during Beijing in 2011 after being asked who was going to retire first - him or Roger Federer? Roddick told the reporter that in fact he should put down his pen and retire and promptly walked out to nervous laughter from the press room.


35. 2012 was an interesting year for David Nalbandian where it concerned officials and the Australian Open was possibly a sign of his frustration bubbling towards the surface. Tied at 8-8 in the fifth set Nalbandian has break point on the tough Isner serve. Isner serves out but the umpire overrules the call. Nalbandian isn't so sure and after checking the mark wishes to challenge. Incredibly and with little or no justification Kader Nouni refuses his right to challenge stating he took too long. Showing absolutely no regard for the circumstances of the match, Nouni refuses to budge on the issue. Nalbandian seeks the tournament referee who refuses to change proceedings.

Nalbandian: "How many times do you see the mark and challenge? You asked me, I see the mark, I said challenge. No, no. I was waiting. How much time do I have to call? Shut up! How much time do I have? No, answer. How much time do I have? I call, challenge! Challenge!"

It later transpired the Isner serve was out and Nalbandian would have been facing an Isner second serve on break point. Instead Isner held and went on to win the match. Nalbandian was later fined for splashing water on to an official administering his drug test after the match. More from Nalbandian soon.


36. At the same Australian Open Bernard Tomic appeared to want to challenge mid-point against Alexandr Dolgopolov and threw the Ukrainian off in the process. For some strange reason the umpire didn't believe Tomic was looking to challenge even though the Australian clearly stopped, looked to the umpire and raised his racquet. Dolgopolov was rightfully dumbfounded by the decision. Tomic would go on to win the fifth set.


37. Marcos Baghdatis figured if he was going to smash one racquet he may as well go and smash four of them. In under a minute at the 2012 Australian Open. He'd go on to lose to Stanislas Wawrinka. His broken racquets went with him.


38. Liezel Huber (with Lisa Raymond) in action once more in what was a very eventful Australian Open for controversial moments and decisions. Facing four match points against the duo of Sania Mirza and Elena Vesnina, Mirza clearly hit what looked like a volley winner as the ball bounces twice in front of Huber. Astonishingly the umpire or any other line judge fails to spot the incident. Vesnina is incandescent with rage while Huber claims she has no idea if the ball bounced twice.

Vesnina: "Two bounce! Carlos! It was two bounce! It was two <throws ball> bounce! What's happening with the umpires in Australian Open? You always want to f*** with the players? It was so clearly two bounces! It was so clearly! It's unbelievable what you're doing!"

This could have got so much more fraught than it eventually did as Vesnina/Mirza saw all four match points slip away. However, they finished the match off and were still rightfully enraged with the umpire.


39. More doubles shenanigans as Leander Paes reminds the umpire that the machine is there to assist him not umpire the match for him. "You're an umpire...stay an umpire."


40. We're still not done with the 2012 Australian Open after Nicolas Almagro legitimately went down the middle against Tomas Berdych. The Czech refused to even look back Almagro's way for an apology. Berdych had no interest in shaking Almagro's hand after the match was won and he was roundly booed by the crowd during his on-court interview.


41. Maria Kirilenko decided to get creative with her hindrance attempts against Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells last year. At a critical stage of the match - 30-15 serving to stay in the set - Kirilenko tapped her racquet on the court four times in quick succession and lost the point for hindrance. Despite pleading her innocence the umpire wasn't buying it and rightfully so. Sharapova eventually prevailed in three sets.


42. Bernard Tomic is often criticised for his bad attitude and body language but we don't need to look too far to see where he got it from. Tomic was so annoyed at his father's body language, gestures and comments during his match with David Ferrer at the 2012 Miami Masters that he actually thanked the umpire for giving his father a coaching violation and asked that he be removed from the stadium.


43. It's no secret that Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova are not fond of each other and things got a little physical during last year's final in Stuttgart. With neither player looking to give way both players brushed each as they went to sit down at the changeover. Judging from the shake of Sharapova's head after the incident it's safe to assume Maria felt Azarenka was the instigator.


44. The final set between Serena Williams and Virginie Razzano had so many twists and turns it's hard to know where to start. Having built up a huge lead Razzano began to wilt under the strain and was called for hindrance while screaming out in agony during rallies. These few minutes just give you a microcosm of what transpired.


45. Caroline Wozniacki continued the Andy Roddick tradition of asking an umpire if they have been to school as she disputed a mark during her French Open loss to Kaia Kanepi. What always struck me about this particular incident was how seemingly polite Wozniacki was while arguing her case.

Wozniacki: "The ball is clearly out. You cannot just sit there and be so arrogant. How can you see the ball is in when the ball is like this out. It's not touching the line, I mean if we had hawk-eye you would be so freaking embarrassed right now. So embarrassed. Especially when you can see the mark. Have you been to school? Can I ask you, have you been to school? You have gone to school! So you know when this, it's out."


46. Another Federer/del Potro match, another Federer outburst, only this time much more to the point. On the verge of going two sets down to the Argentine at last year's French Open, Federer simply tells everyone to "SHUT UP!".


47. Maybe Novak Djokovic was upset with how the 2012 French Open final was going or maybe he just really hates Perrier water - you decide?


48. By now surely everyone with internet access or a television has seen the Nalbandian incident from the Queen's 2012 final. The Argentine had led by a set and a break but suddenly found himself a break down in the second set. Without any thought he kicked out and in the process was defaulted and the title awarded to a bemused Marin Cilic.


49. If there were rankings for taking umpires to task Victoria Azarenka would be challenging for the number one spot. I'm not sure who got the bigger dressing down, Brian Earley by Andy Roddick at the US Open or Julie Kjendlie by Azarenka at the 2012 Olympics. Victoria was unforgiving in her assessment of Kjendlie. 

Azarenka: "No way, I touched the ball, you cannot do that. I touched the ball, I hit the ball, he called it out, what are you talking about? Are you kidding me, or what? You cannot do this, this is against the rules, what are you talking about? What the hell are you talking about? Do you know the rules at all or no? It's not your first time, you always mess up. Can you freaking learn a little bit?"



50. To complete our "50 shades of tennis" is an incident from Stanford 2012. Having already been the victim of a number of atrocious line calls that she was able to overturn on hawk-eye, this time it was the umpire whose confusion appeared to cost Sorana Cirstea against Dominika Cibulkova. After explaining the situation to the tournament referee (on more than one occasion) the point was eventually awarded to Sorana - as it should have been. Cibulkova seemingly doing little to put an end to the dispute when she knew exactly what had happened. Sorana went on to lose the set but won the match in three sets. During the process of which at least seven calls had to be overturned in her favor on hawk-eye. 



Monday, 11 February 2013

Rafael Nadal: The Seven Month Itch


The Overrule's Jay Jarrahi teamed up with Tennis Talk's Cheryl Murray to discuss the return of Rafael Nadal to the men's game. It's been over seven months since the tennis world saw Nadal hit a ball in anger, but that wait is now over. Cheryl and I take a look back at the week gone by and what the immediate future holds for Rafa. 

  • Nadal's return to the tour - what it meant for tennis?

Cheryl: I don't ever remember fans or the ATP itself being so excited to have someone back from injury. The ATP had a "welcome back Rafa" page on their site which was an indication of this. The truth is that tennis is far more interesting with Nadal in it than not. David Ferrer, for all of his qualities, is an incredibly poor substitute.

Jay: It certainly gave tennis a welcome boost at quite an opportune time. The period in between the Australian Open and the start of Indian Wells/Miami can be somewhat of a downturn in the calendar and Nadal's return has kept tennis at the forefront of the sporting news. In addition to giving the South American clay court swing a huge boost in exposure and finance with all of the sponsorship and media that Rafa attracts. It's really been a hugely positive re-introduction for the ATP and tennis once again has that added dimension and dynamic style of play that Rafa brings to the tour.

Cheryl: I've been covering the "golden swing" for years, it has never received this much attention and that can only be a good thing for tennis.  

Jay: There was a period where South American tennis in general was booming in the early/mid 2000's with the likes of Gustavo Kuerten, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria, Guillermo Canas, Gaston Gaudio, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu as high profile personalities in the region. 

That has tailed off mightily in recent years, particularly with Juan Martin del Potro preferring to play indoors in Europe during that period thus removing a star attraction for the South American events. So Nadal playing in South America has once again opened tennis eyes to how popular the sport is there and that it's still a largely untapped area by the ATP. 

Cheryl: The ATP has chosen to focus its efforts on Asia in terms of an emerging market. But with Rafa's return to the dirt in South America, there is a resurgence of interest in not only South American tennis, but tennis in general. Roger Federer and Nadal are the sport's lifeblood and have been for a while. As evidenced in Chile, either one can make (or break, in the case of Doha) a tournament.

  • Nadal's first week back - the expectations? 

Jay: Naturally, I expected there to be a fair amount of rust with Nadal's game. Aside from the technical aspects, the confidence mentally to have faith in his knee once the stress of a match situation arose was surely going to play on his mind somewhat. As the strength of the field was limited, I nevertheless expected Nadal to win the singles title without dropping a set. The difference in class between him and the rest was something I didn't believe any player in the field could overcome, particularly as the week wore on.

Cheryl: I had few expectations of Nadal's form. I don't feel out of line calling him the best clay courter to play the game (though Bjorn Borg fans may argue), but I also know that Nadal needs to work his way into form. I believe that he is still nervous about sustaining injury and it caused him to play tentatively when he otherwise would have gone full-out. 

I am not completely surprised that he did not win the tournament, only that the defeat came in the finals, as I expected the rust to catch up to him a bit earlier than it did. I watched each match and saw what I expected to see - glimpses of his old brilliance in between the rust.

Jay: Borg fans may well argue, but Nadal plays a game on clay that is just ferocious, I don't have any qualms about him being the greatest ever on clay. It's always difficult to compare eras and not a topic I'm fond of, but as the sport evolves, as do the demands and stresses on a player. And what we see currently on tour is something we've never seen before in terms of its relentless intensity. It's a war when you face Nadal on clay, and a war very few live to tell the tale about in a sporting context! 

Cheryl: Beating Rafa on clay is kind of the "final frontier" in tennis. Not beating Federer on grass or Novak Djokovic on hard courts...it's Rafa on clay. All credit to Horacio Zeballos for getting the win, but with the seven month layoff and the fact that he only stepped back on the court to hit balls a couple of months ago, it's hard to read too much into the loss. Andy Murray was recently quoted as saying that people are afraid to beat Rafa on clay and that's why he wins. I disagree. I believe that Nadal is so brutal on clay that even if, somehow, he managed to play somebody who had never heard of him, by the end of the match, they'd be a little afraid. 

  • Vina del Mar - the verdict?

Cheryl: Nadal's form was precisely what I expected when it was finally confirmed that he would play. I expected that he would show what I'd call "signs of life". I guessed that he would have difficulty winning this event, not because his clay court level had dropped so dramatically, but because Nadal is a confidence player. His best clay court tennis is played from what I'd call his "groove", which he has not yet found.

I further believe that he lost the final because he tightened up. Nobody, not even the mighty Rafael Nadal, comes back after a seven month layoff and wins the first tournament out.
 


Jay: The biggest aspect I looked out for was Nadal's movement and timing. This is a key area for any successful clay court player and aside from the mental match toughness that more matches and winning will bring about, it's the movement that will likely be the last piece of the jigsaw to fall into place. 

There was clearly a tentativeness about some aspects of his game. A natural consequence of being away from the action for so long. His first serve percentage was consistent throughout his four matches in the 68-79% mark, but he didn't have the pop on it that he might have liked to deliver in certain instances. In fact he won a higher percentage of second serve points in his first two matches than on first serve. He struggled on Daniel Gimeno-Traver's first serve, but with his fellow Spaniard registering a poor 40% of first serves in, it had no lasting impact on the match. 

Zeballos served extraordinarily well in the final and this was something very few, if any of us, could see coming. Up until the first set tie-break, Nadal had only won four points on the Zeballos serve, but was able to grind him down in the tie-break. At that point I expected Zeballos to fade having played so well in the first set, but he deserves immense credit for sticking to the task.

Once Nadal was broken back at the start of the third set, he appeared at his most vulnerable than at any point in the week. Zeballos wasn't backing down and eventually continuing to attack Nadal whenever he could wore Rafa down to some extent. His lack of match play in deciding moments was evident in the latter stages. It's all a matter of progression for Nadal and as the weeks and months go on, the Vina del Mar final will have proven to be a very valuable first test for him.

 
  •  Sao Paulo - what to expect?

Jay: Nadal's early round draw is very similar to Vina del Mar and I'd expect him to make light work of his opponents before reaching another final. The possibility of him facing Nicolas Almagro for the title in Brazil is quite enticing, as it represents another step on the ladder in Nadal's climb back to the top of the game. His improvement in the coming weeks will likely be steep before he eventually reaches a plateau in his game. Playing doubles with Nalbandian, as he did with Juan Monaco in Chile, will once again give him valuable time on court. 

Cheryl: I expect better tennis from Rafa in Sao Paulo. In fact, I think he might relish the idea of taking on Almagro by the time he gets to the final. The fact that Rafa is an optimist will play in his favor. He will be able to tell himself that he did well to get to a final in his first tournament back, not that it was poor of him to lose the final. 

Jay: If he wasn't already hungry to win titles after seven months off, he'll no doubt have been emboldened by what happened on Sunday in Chile. It should certainly make for a compelling battle with Almagro, should that match come to fruition. It's a match Nadal needs to have to further build on his reintegration back onto the tour. 

  • The immediate future up until the French Open - how might it develop?

Cheryl: I believe that Sao Paulo will go well for Rafa. He has a few matches under his belt now and he'll be especially motivated because of what happened against Zeballos. I would expect that if he manages to get to Almagro that he'll be ready to throw down.

Acapulco has traditionally boasted Ferrer in the field and David Ferrer on clay is no pushover. I am really hoping to see this match, because I believe it will tell us what we need to know for Miami and Indian Wells. Meaning, if Rafa is playing well enough to beat Ferrer on clay, he should be in good shape for a semi-final showing at least at Indian Wells and the quarters in Miami.

Jay: It's important for his confidence to come out of this South American clay court swing with at least one title. Although Nadal often plays down such importance and clearly recognising the relief and joy he must feel to be back playing at all, the fact remains Rafa is a fierce competitor. It was clear defeat to Zeballos hurt him, he's not used to such situations and he won't want to go into Indian Wells doubting himself. 

What lies for him back on US hard courts is another obstacle altogether. That will be an uncertain time for him mentally, since we know the punishment those courts dish out on the body. It will be a nervous time for the Nadal camp and tennis in general to see how he holds up from those demands. 

It wouldn't surprise me, in fact I'm half expecting Nadal to experience early exits at Indian Wells and Miami. His progression back on to hard courts will develop at a lesser rate than on clay, which is effectively his playground.

Cheryl: The courts in Indian wells suit Rafa's game pretty well, but I'm not expecting much in Miami. I doubt either of those tournaments will have much effect on his European clay swing. He's fortunate to start at Monte Carlo, his best tournament of the year. His form there has nearly always predicted his results at Roland Garros. The one time he lost at the French Open, he didn't play that well in Monte Carlo.

Jay: I agree Indian Wells and Miami won't have much bearing as to indicators of his return back to clay in April. There is likely to be a huge difference in the Nadal we see now to the one we will see in May, to the point where we will essentially be watching two different players. The build up of match tightness, confidence and improved sense of movement will make Nadal much like a prize fighter training up to a prime to peak for a major event - which in this case will be the French Open.

The pressure will be on the likely major contenders to knock Nadal's confidence down early before Roland Garros, if he is allowed to build up his confidence whilst beating his biggest foes, it will be demoralising for those wishing to dethrone his reign as the King of Clay.

Read more from Cheryl at Tennis Talk and from Jay both here on Understated Relevance and on The Overrule.  Follow Cheryl and Jay on Twitter.