Which Nadal will return to the tour?

Rafael Nadal's return to the circuit after an absence of almost six months will not happen in Abu Dhabi or the Australian Open.

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Rafael Nadal has had a long struggle with his knees. But this time around, it seems a little more worrisome.

This throws an even larger monkey wrench into an already-ominous early season for Nadal, who has been rehabbing his left knee. The last match the "King of Clay" played in 2012 was a second-round, five-set loss at Wimbledon to Czech to 100th-ranked journeyman Lukas Rosol.

Granted, the stomach virus that caused Nadal to cancel his trip to the United Arab Emirates or Australia isn't exactly a career-threatening injury. So what? He already has one of those.

Nadalistas have been praying and keeping their fingers crossed for months that Nadal will be fully recovered and back in peak, bullish form for the 2013 season. They've been buoyed by most of the news coming out of the Nadal camp, which has been cheery. Nadal has spoken of his "conservative" (read: non-surgical) approach to rehab, and of not making the mistake of returning too soon, a reference to the last time he went through something like this.

That was back in 2009, when he lost for the first -- and thus far only -- time in his career at the French Open. He was upset by Robin Soderling of Sweden, a player of an entirely different order of magnitude than Rosol. Nadal said his knees were already killing him then, and he backed up the excuse by pulling out of Wimbledon, even though he was the defending champ.

That was the last match Nadal played in 2009 until he returned during the hard-court circuit leading up to the U.S. Open, some two-and-a-half months later. But while he played consistently (even on wobbly knees, Nadal is a strong top-four player), Nadal didn't win another tournament until he hit the French Riviera at Monte Carlo in mid-April of the next year.

One chilling footnote to that narrative: Nadal had to abandon his quarterfinal with Andy Murray at the Australian Open after Murray won the first two sets; I don't think I need to tell you why Nadal had to quit.

This current break has been nearly three times longer than the one in 2009. Nadal's insists that his knees feel just fine; in a prepared statement the other day he said: "My rehab has gone well, my knee feels good and I was looking forward to competing. Unfortunately doctors have informed me that my body needs to rest in order to fight this stomach virus."

But just days earlier, he had told Canal Plus television that he was prepared to accept that his left knee "may not respond well at the beginning." He further softened the crowd by floating the idea that he's contemplated playing off and on during the first three months of the season, and said that his target tournament for a full return to form is Monte Carlo. Where else? Nadal is 44-1 and has won eight consecutive titles there.

Does anyone else hear an echo in here?

Nadal is focused on the clay-court season. I find it hard to imagine that, among other things, he'll be seen at Indian Wells or in Miami and certainly not at both hard-court events that are the gateway to the segment he most cares about, the Euro clay. Heck, with this new complication, I can even see him pulling the plug on Australia.

Nadal is presently No. 4. We know that No. 2 Roger Federer is 31 years old and bound to start slowing down at some point, but the other two men in tennis's Big Four (No. 1 Novak Djokovic and No. 3 Andy Murray) are young, gifted and still hungry. Nadal has also been the biggest obstacle to Murray's Grand Slam success; it's no coincidence that Murray won his first major during Nadal's hiatus. But Murray is blooded now, and Djokovic has been a monumental problem for Nadal.

Connect all the dots, and it's easy to imagine Nadal dominating again on clay but hard to see him dominating on the tour. He can't get back to No. 1 simply by sweeping the clay tournaments, unless he can also win Wimbledon and his three rivals help him out with subpar results. Critics once tried to type Nadal as a clay-court specialist, but he fooled them -- much to our delight and benefit. Now he may be forced into that role because of his physical problems.

There's a saying in tennis, "He lets his racket do the talking."

Nadal was like that for most of his career, but now most of the talking is done by his knees.

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