I still have to take injury day by day – Nadal
Trying to persuade Rafael Nadal in recent weeks to discuss the condition of his left knee has been like asking a spy to reveal state secrets. In the wake of his historic eighth French Open triumph on Sunday, however, the Spaniard finally dropped his guard.
Despite his extraordinary comeback, which has brought him seven titles from the nine tournaments he has played since he returned in February, Nadal revealed there had been times this year when his knee hurt so much he had concerns about his future.
After seven months out of the game suffering with Hoffa's syndrome – a swelling around the tendon just below the kneecap – Nadal started his comeback in a minor tournament in Chile, where he was beaten in the final by Argentina's Horacio Zeballos.
"At that moment, I was more worried about things other than winning or losing that match," Nadal said. "I felt a lot of pain in my knee."
The pain and fear returned in April in Barcelona, where Nadal admitted he had felt "very negative" about the knee. "Some weeks I didn't feel well," he said. "I am still going week by week, day by day." However, the best news for Nadal is that he came through seven best-of-five-set matches in a fortnight.
"In the last couple of weeks, my knee started to feel better," he said.
In particular, the Spaniard survived a marathon against Novak Djokovic in Friday's semi-finals, trained on Saturday and felt "100pc" for Sunday's final against David Ferrer.
Although he has pulled out of this week's grass-court tournament in Halle, he plans to return at Wimbledon.
"I really hope to be ready for Wimbledon," Nadal said. "I won't play a tournament before Wimbledon, so that's not the ideal situation before a Grand Slam on grass, where the conditions are very different. But I will try to arrive in good shape at Wimbledon. And if not, I am going to look to the rest of the season because I'm in a good position, even if I don't play a good Wimbledon.
"That doesn't mean I am not going to try, because I am going to try 100pc to be ready and to play good tennis there. But I'm in a position where I can be a little bit more relaxed.
"Everything went much better than I thought it would (at Roland Garros), so I'm in a position where I will have the chance to finish the year in a very good position in the rankings."
Although Nadal dropped one spot to No 5 in yesterday's updated world rankings list, with Ferrer replacing him at No 4, he is well placed to make rapid strides.
Because of the drop in the rankings he is set to be seeded fifth at Wimbledon, which will mean that three of the game's big four players could find themselves in the same half of the draw.
While Nadal insists that regaining the world No 1 ranking is not a target, the top spot should be well within his reach provided his knees do not give way again. He has earned 6,850 ranking points since beginning his comeback, but between now and next February he has the princely sum of 45 points to defend. To be ranked world No 5 when he has not played in two of the last three Grand Slam tournaments, or in five of the last nine Masters Series events, is an extraordinary achievement.
He insists his general level of fitness is not what it was, largely because he restricts his practice in order to nurse his troublesome knee through the season.
Did he ever doubt that he would rediscover a level of performance that enabled him to become the first man ever to win the same Grand Slam title eight times?
"I always think positively. But doubts are part of life. People who don't have doubts are so arrogant. There are doubts in everything. I think nothing is clear in this world. So for sure I had doubts, but I worked as hard as I could to get back." (© Independent News Service)