Rafael Nadal, ranked fifth in the world, had a practice session at the BNP… (Paul Buck / EPA )
Rafael Nadal had a spirited practice session Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open. He played with former Russian top-10 player Mikhail Youzhny, and crowds crammed four deep around the court trying catch a glimpse of one of the players.
"Rafa, Rafa, Rafa, sign this, Rafa, Rafa, Rafa."
There's your clue. The draw was Nadal, the 26-year-old Spaniard who is ranked fifth in the world and who is playing his first hard-court tournament since Miami 11 months ago.
Nadal missed the Olympics and the U.S. Open last year and this year's first major tournament, the Australian Open, because of knee tendinitis.
Guessing how long Rafa might have left on the circuit has become almost a party game among tennis fans.
How many more majors (he has won 11, seven on the soft clay of the French Open) are left in his delicate knee, the one that has given him trouble, off and on, for the last three years?
It was a topic of conversations, serious ones, among the faithful who watched him practice Thursday with his bothersome left knee wrapped. A day before Nadal had practiced without the wrap.
Nadal makes no secret that he prefers the more forgiving surface of clay. When he came back to tennis last month, it was to play clay tournaments at Vina del Mar in Chile and then at Acapulco. But for the next few weeks, the circuit is on hard courts and so Nadal has come to Indian Wells, where he has won twice, most recently in 2009.
"I understand my situation after seven months off," he said Thursday after his practice session. "I don't want to keep talking the knee, I am here to try my best, and we'll see how the knee acts on hard courts.
"On clay the results were positive because the knee was feeling better and better every week. Now I'm going to try here and I don't know how it will be."
Nadal is seeded fifth, behind No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 2 Roger Federer, the defending champion, No. 3 Andy Murray and No. 4 David Ferrer.
Ferrer may not be full of confidence if he meets fellow Spaniard Nadal, who beat him, 6-0, 6-2, in the Acapulco final.
But Nadal claimed that such a total thumping of Ferrer on red clay means nothing here on the hard courts at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
"I'm not confident, no, I'm not confident I'll be able to do it here," Nadal said. "I'm trying to do my best, I'm practicing a lot, just trying to be in the competition and I'm happy to be here, for sure. But I don't expect anything in the results here."
Nadal’s first match will be against 20-year-old American Ryan Harrison, who beat Go Soeda of Japan 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 in a match that ended at 12:14 a.m. Friday.
Murray and Federer said it was nice to have Nadal back on the circuit.
"He's a great competitor. I'm sure people watching would like seeing him on the same court as Roger," said the always-honest Murray, who understands that Federer-Nadal has been one of the best sporting rivalries around.
"I just saw him yesterday," Federer said. "I'm excited to see him again and it should be exciting to see him on hard courts."
On the court
Sixteen-year-old American Taylor Townsend and 42-year-old Japanese Kimiko Date-Krumm won first-round matches Thursday. Townsend and Date-Krumm received wild-card invitations into the main draw and rewarded the tournament's belief in them by moving ahead. Townsend will next play 11th-seeded Ana Ivanovic, and Date-Krumm will face 29th-seeded Elena Vesnina. Another young American, 23-year-old Jamie Hampton, eliminated American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 5-7, 6-3, 6-1, in the first round.
Off the court
The International Tennis Federation, based in London, announced it would begin instituting a biological passport, similar to what has been implemented in cycling, as a prevention against doping. Murray and Federer expressed enthusiastic support for the idea.