What next for Rafa?

Rafael Nadal, perennially ranked in the top two of world tennis, has seen his star falling since defeat at Wimbledon to world number 100 Lukas Rosol and his subsequent injury layoff.

For the first time since 2004, Nadal looks set to finish the season outside of the top four, despite winning the French Open.

It is largely due to his absence from the tour since that fateful five-setter under the roof at Wimbledon but it is also highly likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future since Andy Murray won the US Open, his first grand slam.

Rafa announced on Tuesday that he is aiming to return in time for the Australian Open, in January 2013, making it a six month break from the game as he looks to overcome severe tendinitis brought about through his aggressive playing style.

But what is a realistic target for Nadal if he does return in time for the Aussie? Is he a legitimate title contender or even a guaranteed semi-final participant? Bookmakers would seem to believe so, leaving him as joint-third favourite along with Roger Federer.

However, with Murray’s new found confidence post-US Open and Djokovic’s grand slam hard court mastery, it appears unlikely that he could oust either player in an attempt to win the title.

Federer pushed a fit, match-practiced Nadal in the 2012 Australian Open semi-final and would be fancied to do the same if they meet again in the 2013 curtain raiser.

So are we now looking at just another clay courter? It’s unlikely Nadal’s fall from the precipice of world tennis has left him as a rich man’s Nicolas Almagro or Juan Monaco, as he has form in recovering from injuries.

He suffered through an injury-plagued 2009 season only to win three grand slams on the trot in 2010. However, outside of Roland Garros, Nadal is unlikely to be considered as a top-two contender unless Murray or Djokovic find themselves falling from grace or Rafa himself proves that he just needed rest.

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