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Despite setbacks, Nadal will remain first-rate
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It’s been more than six months since former world No. 1 tennis player Rafael Nadal has played competitively on the ATP tour, but tennis fans shouldn’t be counting out the 26-year-old Spaniard in 2013.

Following an almost inexplicable loss to currently 71st ranked Lukas Rosol in the second-round at Wimbledon last year, Nadal has seemingly gone into hibernation.

After the five-set loss, he displayed the right attitude, telling the BBC, “I’m very, very disappointed, but it’s not a tragedy, it’s only a tennis match.”

Certainly setting the correct tone, but with the way Nadal approaches the game, his statement likely didn’t reflect his overall mentality.

Scratching and clawing for every point on the court, he seems to view each ball as match point. This “never gives up” mindset would have seemingly pulled Nadal back to tennis sooner rather than later. Instead, he’s extended his absence, sitting out this year’s Australian Open to continue his rehabilitation process.

The nagging knee injury that has him sidelined was exacerbated this winter by a stomach virus that kept him out of Doha as well as the first grand slam on the calendar.

Clearly, Nadal did not feel ready to play seven best-of-five matches yet, particularly in the occasionally excruciating heat of Melbourne. Despite the torn patella tendon in his left knee, he’s opted not to have surgery and decided to simply rest it. Former top 10 player James Blake faced a similar injury a few years ago and choose rest over surgery as well. Unfortunately for Blake, it didn’t work out in his favor and he eventually had to have the surgery, losing an even greater chunk of his season.

Of course, Blake and Nadal are in different stratospheres when it comes to elite tennis. When Nadal comes back, he would likely be able to beat most players even without being 100 percent. Against top level talent, however, the road will be a lot bumpier if he’s not completely healthy.

Before falling early at the All England Club last summer, Nadal was on pace for a top notch season. He began the year by making the finals at Australia where he lost in five sets to Novak Djokovic. Then, at the year’s next grand slam, he went on to beat the Serb for his record-breaking seventh title at Roland Garros.

Had he been able to stay healthy last season, the successes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray may have been erased. In July, Federer went on to beat Murray in four sets in London, capping off a record equaling seventh Wimbledon title. Two months later, Murray would deny Djokovic his second major of the year and win the U.S. Open in five sets. Throw Nadal into the mix and 2012 could have seen some very different results.

His absence in the early part of the year will likely mean a continuation of the end of 2012. The top three -- Djokovic, Federer, and Murray -- will probably continue their dominance. Look for one of those three to bring home the Australian Open crown when it wraps up at the end of January. For Nadal, rust will certainly be a factor, as it is for every player after an injury, but only time will tell how it will ultimately impact him.

In the meantime, top 10 players like David Ferrer, Thomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Janko Tipsarevic may start pushing past Nadal in the rankings, where he currently sits fourth. Some of those players may even reach a grand slam final and pull off a highly surprising victory, but the crystal ball still shows a drop in talent and experience outside the top four.