A bad stomach doesn’t leave you out of a Grand Slam tournament; a problem with your already troubling knees does. Rafael Nadal wasn’t in best shape, so he skipped the Australian Open and other “official” returns in 2013. Don’t expect too much of him once he actually makes his tennis comeback.

February is going to be month for Nadal; the one that decides whether the 11 time Grand Slam champion is going to find a way to rise back up the ATP rankings, falling to the 73rd place and dropping fast at the current rate.

Nadal has three clay tournaments in Latin America lined up for his return: The VTR Open in Vina del Mar in Chile, a ATP 250 tournament. A week later he’ll test the waters even deeper in Brazil, playing in the Brasil Open, another 250 tournament in Sao Paulo; Nadal won this tournament during the early days of his career, back in 2005. It has been dominated by Nicolas Almagro in recent years.

Nadal’s final tournament for February, ending a busy schedule for a player who hasn’t been in a professional match for over six months, will be in Mexico, in the Mexican Open at Acapulco, a 500 tournament which Nadal won in 2005 and has been won by David Ferrer over the past three years.

Even Nadal says that his knee still hurts. He mentioned sometimes it still hurts … but I have to start sooner or later. The three tournaments Nadal plays in February aren’t just a bearing on where his season might be going, but where his career will be as well. If his knees hold up well during that month, potentially playing in 15 matches, he’ll know that he’s on the right path to relatively complete health, and put European Clay titles and obviously the French Open on his sight.

If pain is still too big a part of everytime he steps on the court, it doesn’t just mean he needs more time between tournaments, more rest and possibly refusing to play on hard courts. It might be the end of his career.

The motivation, the illusion is big, so very happy to be back in the competition but just you know, with patience to know how the knee will answer after a long time without that top level. I will need a few weeks to see how the things improve, but the most important thing for me is if I can support the pain of the knee. If I can play these three tournaments in a row then I think it will work very well for me because I will have three important weeks to prepare for the rest of the season.

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