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Tennis | ATP

Rafael Nadal © Gallo Images

Nadal's paradoxical recipe

Rafael Nadal is currently the hardest tennis player to understand: he keeps winning one tournament after another, and yet his doubts pervade every trophy.

Nadal has played seven finals in the seven tournaments he has played since he returned to competitive tennis after a long injury break. Indeed, he has won five of those tournaments and towers far above all his rivals in terms of performance.

However, his mind is still dwelling heavily on his absence of more than seven months and on "fear" about the state of his recovering knee. He is winning much more than anyone else on the ATP tour, but that is not enough for him.

"I am enjoying everything that happens after seven months away from this world of tennis. Every win means more than ever for me," the Spaniard said.

"The prospects would be excellent if I weren't feeling anything on my knee, but I'm not sure how things are going to work out. The injury does not date back a few years but a few months."

Nadal is terrified about a relapse in his knee troubles.

However, he won the tournaments in Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Barcelona and Madrid and things are looking good.

Even if he will not admit to it, Nadal is currently the main favourite to win his eighth French Open title. And, even if he says it is crazy and notes that it is still "very far away," he is also a serious candidate to end the year as world No 1.

In fact, it is not crazy at all: without playing the Australian Open or Miami, Nadal currently stands just 130 points behind Novak Djokovic, who won this year's first Grand Slam tournament, in the 2013 points race: 4 130 for the Serb, 4 000 for the Spaniard. Former world No 1 Roger Federer, for example, is out of that top 10.

The load on Nadal's shoulders is huge March to July, key months in the season in which he is playing from Indian Wells to Wimbledon. If he keeps up his winning progression, he could go on a rampage from Wimbledon on.

In 2012 he lost in the second round at the All England Club, and he did not play a single match for the rest of the year. While his rivals will have points to defend, he can only go up.

For a young man obsessed with competing and winning, that is certainly a good thing. In fact it is good even for those closest to him, those whom he drove nuts on the golf course over those few months in which he could not play tennis.

"Aren't you going to play seriously? You're here to compete," he would tell them in that period in which poker and golf satisfied his desire to measure himself up against others.

Fortunately for his golf partners, Nadal is now focusing on tennis. Federer, Djokovic and even Andy Murray do not look in better form than Nadal, and the Spaniard is "the" player currently on the tour.

He himself acknowledges that his drive is working well again, and with that stroke he can make up for some small problems he continues to have in terms of mobility.

Again immersed in his life as a tennis player, Nadal takes note of every detail. Even as a teenager, when he first started playing professionally, he had a mental computer for statistics. He remembers every match he ever played, with incredible details about his finals and even about matches played by his closest rivals.

So late Sunday, when asked about the chance that he might surpass Argentine legend Guillermo Vilas with his 46-titles-on-clay record, Nadal was confused by the incorrect information the ATP had been issuing in recent days.

"Forty-six? Wasn't it 45?"

No, it is 46. And Nadal most likely highlighted a date on his mental calendar: June 8, 2014. If his tennis stays on its current course, Nadal could be lifting on that day in Paris his ninth French Open trophy, his 47th title on clay, to push a bit further away the injury ghosts that torment him.


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