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Nadal set for biggest test in comeback Add to ...

ttebbutt@globeandmail.com

Je t'aime," (I love you) said a deep voice coming from a 30ish male as Rafael Nadal was about to cross from Stade Uniprix into the adjacent locker room building after his 6-3, 6-2 win over Philipp Petzschner of Germany at the Rogers Cup yesterday.

"I love him really, I promise you," the man reiterated when some people, standing nearby and also waiting for Nadal to go by, looked at him somewhat quizzically.

Defending champion Nadal has an avid following of fans. After not seeing him in competition since he was upset in the fourth round of the French Open on May 31, they are excited, and anxious, about his return to competition this week.

Just how fit and ready he is, after 10 weeks out with tendinitis in both knees, is still unclear after yesterday's uncomplicated (and un-testing) win over the No. 45-ranked Petzschner, and only seven games played on Wednesday night before his opponent David Ferrer retired with a knee injury.

That should all change tonight when he plays No. 6-ranked Juan Martin del Potro, the 6-foot-6 Argentine who has not entirely registered on the global sports consciousness despite his impressive play.

Nadal lost to del Potro in their previous meeting, in the quarter-finals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami in March, and is well aware of the gangly del Potro's explosive ground strokes and potent serve.

"I don't know if it is going to be too much," Nadal said about facing del Potro so soon in his return from inactivity. "But, I love the competition and I'm going to try to be ready for the match. I'm going to try my best to be competitive."

That is probably not too hard when, on his father's side of the family, there are three very competitive and athletic uncles - including Miguel Angel, a former World Cup soccer player for Spain, Toni, his long-time coach and a fine tennis player, as well as his namesake Rafael, who was also active in sports.

The lone un-athletic one is his father, Sebastian.

But he is anything but laid-back when it comes to supporting Rafael at tournaments, as an incident recounted in Jon Wertheim's new book, Strokes of Genius, reveals. During the classic 2008 Wimbledon final, when Roger Federer was rallying from a two sets to love deficit, Sebastian let into his brother Toni for being too passive and for not imparting a positive, energetic vibe to Rafael as he watched from the courtside friends box.

"He likes to win but I prefer winning more than him," Rafael said about his father yesterday.

Sebastian Nadal has been successful with a window contracting business in Mallorca, and has also recently dabbled in real estate outside Spain.

"My father is the only one in the family who never practised sports," Nadal said. "He did well - he started from zero and now he's a good businessman. I admire him for that."

Going through the difficult times of his father and mother Ana Maria separating, Rafael is accompanied in Montreal by his long-time girlfriend, Xisca Perello.

As well, there are a few of his old signature sleeveless tennis tops. He needed a white top for his first doubles match and Nike was only able to come up with something white in sleeveless.

For next week in Cincinnati, where Nadal is expected to play doubles with Novak Djokovic, some of the white sleeved shirts, which he was supposed to wear at Wimbledon, will be shipped in.

For now, he is resplendent in a deep yellow bandana and matching wristbands, a rich blue shirt and white shorts with a subtle squares pattern on them.

That will be his outfit for tonight's match against del Potro. As he struggles to find his form, his biggest hope against the Argentine, a hot player who beat Andy Roddick in the Washington final last Sunday, may be that the Argentine is tired after that long week and a gruelling 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Victor Hanescu yesterday.

And Nadal knows he may be able to compensate with his inexhaustible competitive drive for what he is lacking in movement and the timing of his shots.

Whatever the result, it is a sure thing that tournament security will have the cordons out to hold the back his fervent fans when he leaves the stadium after the match.

 

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