Today's Rogers Cup order of play is a who's who in men's tennis, but it's hard not to look right past all those great matches (Juan Carlos Fererro vs. Monfils, Roddick vs. Andreev) and skip right to the night session that has the tennis world holding their collective breath.
Think back to the U.S. Open, 2007, 4th round. It was the first of two consecutive hard court victories for David Ferrer over his compatriot Rafael Nadal. Rafa was struggling with knee issues even then, but his legacy was small compared to what it is now, for he was known primarily as a clay courter whose game was the equivalent of trying to ride a mountain bike against Lance Armstrong in the Tour De France.
The swashbuckling Ferrer, clad in red Lotto gear and many necklaces, grunted and groaned his way to a four set victory over Rafa at Flushing Meadows, and while Nadal's ailing knees were definitely part of the story, the real theme to me seemed to be that Rafa was simply in over his head on the cement, even against a fellow Spaniard like Ferrer, who by the way played out of his head that match.
And what have we learned in the meantime? Well, Rafa's game, after a bit of tinkering with the help of Uncle Toni, and a lot of blood and guts poured out in the form of practice, is just fine on the hard court. Or on grass. Heck, it would be fine in the Pyrenees. The guy is born to win - hand him a broom and he'll hand you a forehand winner. He proved that in his tear jerking defeat of Roger Federer in Australia earlier in the year.
But there is an asterisk when it comes to Rafa's domination. He's not the same when he's not healthy enough to play with reckless abandon. Rafa is a player who feeds off his movement. It's almost as if he has to be playing with a certain out-of-this-world intensity in order to execute his game plan. When his body is unencumbered he is capable of breathtaking feats on the tennis court. He can switch into Tasmanian devil that spins, contorts, reacts, and crushes anything that he can reach with his racquet.
But one thing that is unclear after a long layoff and two doubles matches. Will he be the same Tasmanian devil character that we've come to know and love?
How healthy is he? Rust is one thing, and that's to be expected, but will he possess the same visceral aptitude when he motors around the court this evening at Stade Uniprix, or will he be weighed down by worry, not wanting to push the knees back over the cliff that he was up against just prior to his unceremonious thrashing at the hands of "Le Sod" on that fateful day in Paris.
That my friends, is the $443,500 question.
Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer, 7 P.M.