Brian Baker: Watching Nadal on clay is one perk of rehab

Brian Baker, sidelined by a knee injury, will chronicle his recovery for USA TODAY Sports.
  • Brian Baker%27s recovery continues on course.
  • While sidelined%2C however%2C Baker got a chance to watch Rafael Nadal.
  • %22If Rafa stays healthy%2C I have no doubt he will return to his prior level%22.
  • I did not get the opportunity to watch much of Borg, Vilas and Muster because they played before my time. With that said, I’d have a hard time believing that any of these great clay-court players could consistently outplay a healthy Rafael Nadal on the dirt.

    He has proved over the years that he is virtually unstoppable on clay. He possesses both speed and power while maintaining unbelievable balance when he gets stretched wide. In addition, he is extremely fit and is one of the best competitors the game has ever seen.

    I’ve never had the honor of playing Nadal on clay, but I’m sure it would be quite a task just to stay competitive. He gives you nothing and will send body blows with his forehand until you break down or cough up something short. He makes it to where you have to hit through him which is almost impossible on clay.

    With all this said, I don’t think Rafa is anywhere close to where he was last clay-court season when he won everything (I’m sure he would say the same thing). I watched almost his entire final against Nalbandian in São Paulo and although he won comfortably, he didn’t look that comfortable.

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    He looked tentative with his movement, he uncharacteristically sprayed a ton of groundstrokes, and his serve was inconsistent. As the match progressed, Rafa raised his level considerably and was able to constantly hurt Nalbandian with his forehand. In spots, he looked like the same old Rafa that everybody has grown accustomed to. If Rafa stays healthy, I have no doubt he will return to his prior level. However, his game relies so much on his footwork and movement that even a small decline in this area will seriously affect his ability to beat the top players. I’m sure Djokovic and Federer are eager to find out if Rafa will round into form in time for the French Open.

    It seems like every year during the French that nobody even believes that they can beat Rafa in a three-out-of-five-set match. To their defense, he really doesn’t give them a reason to believe! This year may get more interesting.

    One thing that is for certain is that his return is good for the game. He has a huge fan base and brings a ton of excitement to the game. Tennis has not quite been the same for the past seven months.

    As far as my rehab is concerned, I’m progressing nicely.

    I saw Dr. Elrod on Monday, and he assured me that everything looks great. He was tempted to let me start biking and using the elliptical machine a couple weeks early but finally decided against that as a precautionary measure. I guess there’s no sense to risk aggravating the meniscus before it can heal completely. So unfortunately I have to be patient for two more weeks before I get to kick it into high gear. Hopefully he won’t be so cautious when I ask him when I can start playing some golf. I’ll explain to him that it is part of my mental rehab!

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    I am sad that I missing the ATP in Memphis this week, but the itch to get back out there fuels my motivation to go the extra mile in rehab. I’ll be back soon enough.

    — Brian.

    Next time: The rehab work continues.