In a publicity stunt staged by his sponsor Kia at the weekend, one of Rafa Nadal's tennis rackets was lifted into the stratosphere on a helium balloon, then dropped back to earth from 31,000 meters. The racket, intact, was then returned to Nadal.
The event marks Nadal's return to action after seven months on the sidelines with a patella tendon injury in his left knee and a subsequent stomach virus that delayed his intended comeback in Qatar and forced him to miss the Australian Open. Now ranked world number five, Nadal was granted an invitational wild card into the VTR Open in Viña del Mar, Chile, next week.
The French Open champion's climb back to the summit of tennis will not be as smooth as his racket's ascent into space. Question marks over the longevity of his career remain and Nadal conceded that Chile would be a stepping stone for the season. "The most important thing for me is the knee... to see that I can bear the pain from the knee and then if I am able to play these three tournaments in a row, I think it will work very well for me because I will have three important weeks to prepare for the rest of the season," Nadal said this week after a training session at his Manacor home. "I know that the first three tournaments are going to be difficult in terms of results but I am going to try everything. I will need a few weeks to see how things improve."
I will need a few weeks to see how things improve"
The Spaniard is competing for the first time in Chile, to the obvious delight of the tournament's organizers — and plans to compete in the so-called Latin American Golden Swing, which also passes through Buenos Aires, São Paulo and Acapulco. At the latter two Nadal will be joined by compatriot and new world number four, David Ferrer, who holds the Brazilian and Mexican titles, and Nicolás Almagro, the champion last year in Argentina who returns to Buenos Aires to defend his title. In Chile, Nadal will also contest the doubles with Juan Mónaco. His first-round singles match in the latter is scheduled for February 5 and the doubles opener a day earlier. Also in the field are Tommy Robredo, the 2011 champion, Pablo Andújar, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, Albert Montañés, Albert Ramos and Rubén Ramírez Hidalgo.
"It's a real honor to have him in Viña del Mar, where I grew up," said local hero Nicolás Massu, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in singles and doubles and 2006 champion in São Paulo, who has himself not played an ATP Tour level event since the last VTR Open. "It's amazing to have the best clay-court player of all time. It's the best tennis news in Chile for years. It would be a dream to play Nadal here."
By playing in the Golden Swing for the first time since 2005 — when he won in Acapulco and São Paulo — Nadal is aiming to reach full fitness to defend the titles he won last year during the European clay-court season: Rome, Barcelona, Monte Carlo and the French Open. Considered the greatest clay courter of all time, Nadal holds a 254-19 record on the surface and is third in the Open Era titles table with 36, behind Thomas Muster (40) and Guillermo Vilas (46).