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Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.

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Don't rule out Rafa sticking only to clay

Chris Wilkinson February 5, 2013
Rafa Nadal is on the cusp of his return to ATP Tour action © Getty Images
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I am sure it will have crossed Rafa Nadal's mind during his painfully slow return to competitive tennis that he could prolong his career by becoming an exclusive clay-court player.

The Spaniard's knees have long caused him problems with any natural weaknesses being exacerbated by his brutal style of play which never sees him give up on a lost cause. It's fantastic to watch and on clay he can get away with it but on hard court and grass he suffers.

We will know more about Nadal's intentions this season, and the true state of his knees, if he manages to play in the two Masters series tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami in March. They are both on hard court and if he doesn't travel to America to compete in them he could just stay on clay all the way to the French Open.

He must be considering that, I just wonder whether the commitment to the ATP Tour and to the sponsors will mean he has to play the two Masters series events. Hopefully the decision will be made solely on what's good for Rafa. Shunning all other surfaces to only play on clay is a real option as it could significantly extend the 26-year-old's career and you can still win a grand slam and Masters series tournaments on clay.

At the moment he is in Chile and about to make his comeback in the VTR Open in Vina del Mar. He'll then go on to play in Sao Paulo in Brazil and these two tournaments will be a good move for him. He'll be playing on a surface he knows about so he can control his knees and the opposition isn't great, he's not going up against Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or any of the top guys so he's got a chance to win some matches and get that feeling back.

It's been an incredibly frustrating seven months or so for Nadal. His last match was a five-set loss against Lukas Rosol in the second round at Wimbledon and to think that came so soon after his victory in the French Open must have really frustrated him.

Since then he's missed the opportunity to defend his Olympic crown and seen all three of his main rivals Federer, Andy Murray and Djokovic pick up grand slams while he's been resting his knees and having injections. Then to top it all his intended return in Doha at the beginning of the year had to be abandoned because of a virus.

I would imagine he must be dying to get out there and play because he's a bit of a bull in a china shop and once the door's opened, he is out. It will be tough for him though because he has a point to prove yet he will be cautious about how his knees, the left one in particular, will hold up.

Yet however well his comeback goes, it's going to be a long time before we see the Nadal of old - that will take two or three months, if his body doesn't rebel again. Look what happened to Juan Martin Del Potro. He had a wrist injury and it took him a while to get back to his best but now he's among the top 10 again. Hopefully it will be the same for Nadal and he can make a full recovery because the Tour needs him. He's such a nice guy and a great ambassador and role model for kids. This is a golden era of tennis but tournaments miss him when he's not there and it would be great to have Rafa back.

If he gets back to his best, could he challenge Djokovic as the world No. 1? I don't think so. Djokovic has the edge over him now and has got more of an all-round game than Nadal has.

When it comes to the French Open, I think Nadal will be favourite still because he has an incredible record on the surface. But for me over the course of the year, it's Djokovic No. 1, Murray No. 2, and a fit Nadal and Federer are there together fighting for third.

Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1

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Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis. Chris Wilkinson is a former British No. 1, who now serves as a tennis commentator and as a coach for the LTA. He is ESPN.co.uk's resident expert, providing an exclusive view on the world of tennis.