He resembled the man we remember. The hair was the hair; a little shorter, but not short. The biceps were the biceps. The Nike NKE +0.50% get-up, as always, was customized for him: "squadron" blue bandana and shorts, a shirt in Barney the Dinosaur purple, a touch of orange sherbet around the neck. He swooped that famous lasso forehand. He took forever between serves. He sweated. He toweled. He grunted. He sounded like a man lifting a heavy credenza. Yeah. That was his grunt.
He was terrible in the opening moments. It had been 222 days since Rafael Nadal last played singles tennis, the last time being an immolation in Wimbledon's second round to a rampaging Lukas Rosol. A knee injury was blamed for Nadal's absence—a partial tear in his left patella tendon—but the delay dragged on in maddening spurts. He was said to be getting better, then not so better. Training, but not playing. Nadal seemed to be on his way back for the Australian Open, but then removed himself with a stomach bug. It got to be aggravating. Rafa promised, Rafa denied.
Now here he was, finally, in Vina del Mar, Chile, his first appearance in South America in eight years.