Rafa proving the power of perseverance
KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Rafael Nadal, sensing correctly that David Ferrer's second serve on match point would be something less than impressive, skipped around his backhand and spanked a screaming winner down the line.
What followed Tuesday was vintage Rafa: a yowling, double-scissor-kicking, first-pumping victory celebration. It had a high level of difficulty (executed cleanly), but was oddly savage at the same time. Which suggests that Nadal is rounding into the kind of form that carried him to the No. 1 ranking in 2008.
On Wednesday night, Nadal lifted his game a little higher in an electric performance in a jammed stadium at the Sony Ericsson Open. He smashed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 6-3, 6-2. The talented Frenchman faced eight break points on his serve -- and Nadal, insatiable in the moments that mattered, won every one of them.
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"It's amazing going on court with this atmosphere," Nadal said. "Full court. Crowd always very emotional here. I'm very happy to play this level tonight."
After missing Wimbledon last year and retiring from the Australian Open quarterfinals in late January, the state of Nadal's tender knees has been discussed with a zeal approaching the national health-care debate. Now that he's played nine matches in a span of 19 days, those lingering questions have been answered.
The only real issue Nadal has wrestled with here is a renegade wisdom tooth.
The 2009 season began impossibly well when Nadal won the Australian Open, defeating Federer in the final. It was the 23-year-old Spaniard's third consecutive victory over Federer in a major final, and it seemed to signal a shift in the dynamic of this great rivalry.
Nadal confirmed those suspicions by going on a tear, winning Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. By the time he got to the Madrid final against Federer, he was physically -- and emotionally -- ruined.
After a record-setting four-hour ultra-marathon with Djokovic in the semifinals, Nadal went meekly in straight sets. He fell to Robin Soderling in the fourth round at Roland Garros -- losing for the first time in 32 matches there after four French Open titles -- and then came the news that Nadal, ravaged by tendinitis in his knees, would not be able to defend his title at the All England Club. Later, we learned his parents had separated and that the news struck him particularly hard.
Nadal failed to win the last nine tournaments he played in 2009, but hit a lot of balls at home in Mallorca during the month of December.
"The last four months of the last year was tough for me," Nadal explained at Indian Wells. "I didn't see the way how to play well because I had problem and was difficult to get the rhythm. I started playing the  season really well."
And then he suffered a slight tear in a tendon in his right knee playing against Murray at the Australian Open. It was not related to the tendinitis, but it sent Nadal back to Mallorca for more than a month of rest.
"The life in Mallorca is not bad," Nadal said. "The worst thing is when you are working hard and, when you really feel ready, when you have another time of injuries, that's hard to accept. But that's the sport.
"I feel very lucky with 23 years to have what I have at this day. At the same time, I'm only 23. Lot of times people forget that. Seems like I have 28. I have 23."
A good point. Since he first won the French Open just days after his 18th birthday, Nadal has seemed like a wise old soul. He understands the physicality of his game -- watching him crack those wickedly top-spinning forehands against Tsonga can send tremors through the wrists of those watching -- will always leave him at risk as far as injuries are concerned.
Nadal will probably be the favorite at Roland Garros, where he will seek his fifth title in six years. He has already amassed six Grand Slam singles titles, 10 behind Federer. But his performance in ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events underlines his powers of perseverance. Although Federer was attempting to tie Andre Agassi with 17 Masters shields, it is worth noting that a title here would give Nadal 16, the same as Federer.
Nadal holds a 5-2 head-to-head advantage over Roddick, but on hard courts, it's a 2-all draw. Last year, Nadal beat Roddick in the semifinals at Indian Wells, 6-4, 7-6 (4), and this one looks and feels as if it will be similarly close.
"Looks like a semifinal," Nadal insisted. "We're in the semifinals here. The other side of the draw is very hard, too. I think it's a good semifinal against two of the best players of the world."
If the past year has taught Nadal anything, it's not to look too far ahead.
"No one," he said, "anticipates the final in this tournament."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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