By Randy Walker
The most famous body part in the world of tennis currently was on display Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, we are talking about the left knee of Rafael Nadal, who was competing for the first time in a match – albeit an exhibition – on a surface other than clay in more than eight months in the annual BNP Paribas Showdown in the world’s most famous arena.
Nadal’s first time at The Garden – which he described as “ a mythical place” on his Facebook page – was spoiled to a degree in a 7-6 (4), 6-4 loss to Juan Martin del Potro.
Following the match, Nadal reported to a waiting press corps of about 75 that “the knee is good.” His movement throughout the one hour, 34-minute match did not appear hindered on the indoor carpet surface. The match, however, was an exhibition and was littered with many joking points with he and del Potro exchanging “tweener” between-the-leg shots and Nadal, at one point, using his head to put away a winner. He even invited actor Ben Stiller from the crowd to participate in a hit-and-giggle on his side of the court, del Potro countering by inviting a 9-year-0ld girl from the lower seats, who stole the show, hitting strong balls with del Potro’s racquet and winning points against the lesser coordinated Stiller.
After Nadal’s second-round shock loss to No. 100 ranked Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon on June 28, the Spaniard has been off the circuit, citing pain in his knee.
He made his comeback to professional tennis on the comfortable clay, under which he has won seven French Open titles, in three events at the recently concluded Latin American clay court swing where he reached the final of Vina del Mar, Chile and won the events in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Acapulco, Mexico, the latter with a decisive 6-0, 6-2 final-round win over world No. 4 David Ferrer.
After his success on the South American clay, Nadal said, “Today I know I can play on clay. Playing tennis will be a process to adapt my knee to the competition. I hope I will keep having the chances to play the normal calendar as I did in past years.”
Rafa’s Knees – who have their own parody Twitter account @RafasKnees that is described as Nadal’s “least dependable body part” – will be put to the test as he will transition off the soft clay to the hard courts in the California desert at the BNP Paribas Open that begins later this week in Indian Wells, Calif. He was non-committal as to his participation in the Sony Open, another hard court event that starts March 20 in Miami, saying he will “go day by day” based on how his knee is feeling.
“I cannot predict the future,” Nadal said “I have to see how the knee will last at Indian Wells next week. Having the chance to play at Indian Wells is great. I didn’t know one week ago if I would be able to play at Indian Wells.”
Beyond Indian Wells and Miami lays the European clay-court season – where Nadal butters his bread – starting with the Monte Carlo Open that begins April 14, an event Nadal has won the last eight years – through French Open where Nadal will seek his eighth title starting May 26.
Also on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka played a rematch to their US Open final played seven months ago with Williams again winning 6-4, 6-3.