RAFAEL Nadal is used to coming here with question marks over his future, but as he prepared to begin his quest for an eighth successive Monte Carlo Masters title, even the king of clay admitted yesterday to being "a little bit scared".
Nadal, the world No 2 who plays his opening match tomorrow, against Jarkko Nieminen, has not won a tournament for 10 months and has lost to Novak Djokovic in seven successive finals. But the reason for the 25-year-old Spaniard's caution is not so much his form as his perennial knee problems. Nadal revealed that he had not practised for a fortnight after an injury to his left knee forced him to withdraw from last month's Miami Masters semi-final against Andy Murray.
"I couldn't move my knee," he said. "I have to try to be patient."
Asked if he found it easy to adapt to playing on clay again, he said: "I don't feel comfortable even today. I need time. I need to spend hours on court, play matches and I need practice. I had to stop after Miami for a long time. I started to practise four days ago, so it's not enough."
While Nadal insisted that dealing with knee problems was "nothing new" for him, he admitted he had been concerned about the outcome of treatment for his latest injury, which involved having an injection to deal with a troublesome tendon behind his left knee.
"I did the treatment two times," he said. "In the past it worked well, but I did this treatment for this new injury before Indian Wells [last month] and it worked well the first couple of days, but afterwards it didn't work well. So I am a little bit scared, but it seems like today I am able to practise with no impediments. I think it needs time to see how good it is, when I play at the top level and when I run without thinking about the knee, when I put all my effort on the knee. But hopefully I am able to practise with the right conditions. That's the most important thing."
Nadal will also be hoping that a return to one of his favourite events will reinvigorate him in the way it has so many times in the past. In six of the last seven years the world No 2 has begun his clay-court season with victory here and gone on to win the French Open.
Two years ago he came to the Monte Carlo Country Club without a title in 11 months and went on to enjoy the greatest clay-court season in modern times, winning all three Masters events on his favourite surface as well as the French Open. Even last year, when Djokovic beat him in clay-court finals in Madrid and Rome, the Spaniard still ended his favourite part of the year with the Monte Carlo and Roland Garros titles.
Nadal insisted that his recent lack of tournament victories did not unduly concern him, pointing out that if he was simply interested in adding to his tally of 46 career titles he would play in more clay-court events outside the normal season.
"My [schedule] for the last few years has been just the most important tournaments of the year, playing against the best players in the world, not always on the most favourable surface for me, so that makes it more difficult to win titles," he said. "I am doing my [schedule] to try to win the most important titles on the tour, to try to be healthy for as long as I can, and to have a longer career."
Nadal also pointed to the number of finals he has reached since winning the 2011 French Open. In particular he has reached the last three Grand Slam finals, losing to Djokovic on each occasion.
Given his current knee problem, it might be wrong to draw too many conclusions if Nadal's extraordinary run of 37 consecutive victories here on the Côte d'Azur were to end this week. However, a triumph for Djokovic at a tournament where he has been a semi-finalist twice and runner-up once in his last three appearances could be another major psychological blow to strike against Nadal. The Serb, who missed this tournament last year, has not lost to the Spaniard since the group stage of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in 2010.
Nevertheless, the 24-year-old was cautious when talking about his own chances.
"Nadal is the ultimate challenge on clay," he said. "He's the king of clay, the best tennis player ever to play on this surface. The fact is that Nadal plays his best tennis in Monte Carlo, aside from Paris."
Although this year Djokovic has not made the whirlwind start of 2011, when he won 41 matches before losing to Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the French Open, he looked back near his best when he won earlier this month in Miami. He did not drop a set in his six matches.
With a particularly busy summer ahead – the Olympic tournament is sandwiched between Wimbledon and the start of the US hard-court season – Djokovic has been careful not to push himself too hard in the opening months of the year. Having taken a break after winning the Australian Open, he lost in the semi-finals in Dubai and Indian Wells, to Andy Murray and John Isner respectively, before resuming his winning ways. If he meets Nadal in Sunday's final here, it will be a contest to savour.