Sao Paulo - Rafael Nadal is drawing inspiration from Brazilian football great Ronaldo to continue his successful return from injury.
With Ronaldo watching, Nadal took an important step on Sunday by winning the Brazil Open for his first title after a seven-month layoff to treat his left knee. Now he wants to repeat the Brazilian's successful story of recovery from much more serious injuries.
Nadal said Ronaldo is "an example" to be followed because of his determination to rebound from a series of knee injuries that threatened his career.
Despite winning again, the Spaniard is still bothered by his knee and said he is far from fully recovered, although he hopes the victory in front of Ronaldo will mark a new beginning in his career.
"Ronaldo is an example to a lot of people because of all that he was able to achieve despite what he had to go through with all the knee problems in his career," Nadal said. "He is definitely an example to me. He's an example of determination and hard work."
Ronaldo ended his career as one of the world's top strikers after overcoming three serious knee operations. The former Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan striker won two World Cups with Brazil and remains the tournament's all-time leading scorer with 15 goals.
Nadal said he has always admired Ronaldo, and as a kid proudly took a photo with the striker when he played for Barcelona in the late 1990s.
"He was unstoppable, one of the best players of all time despite all the bad luck he had with the knee," Nadal said.
The Spaniard was out of action since last year because a torn and inflamed tendon in his knee, an injury that he says is improving but still bothers him from time to time. He downplayed his difficulties compared to Ronaldo's, but said he now has a better understanding of what the Brazilian had to go through.
"I didn't have so many problems, I never needed the surgeries," Nadal said. "But I can imagine how hard it must have been for Ronaldo with the complicated surgeries that he had to go through."
Nadal beat former world No 3 David Nalbandian of Argentina 6-2, 6-3 in Brazil on Sunday, winning his 51st career title and first since beating Novak Djokovic to lift his seventh Roland Garros trophy last June.
The Brazil Open was Nadal's second tournament since his return. He played at the VTR Open in Chile the week before, losing the singles and doubles final. The final in Brazil was only his eighth singles match since the comeback. He withdrew from the doubles in Sao Paulo to rest his knee for the singles tournament.
Nadal looked far from his best in his first two tournaments and said that the knee injury still limited him physically.
"There are days that the knee still hurts and it's very complicated," he said. "I need some time to keep improving and become more competitive again. Let's see how it goes."
The 11-time Grand Slam champion admitted that the level of the competition in Brazil was not as high as in other tournaments but said that it wasn't bad either, giving him the perfect opportunity to put his knee to test.
Nadal will play another clay-court tournament in Mexico later this month and the goal is to be fully fit again by the time Roland Garros arrives in May, although his future schedule will depend on how the knee holds up. He had intended to play in Indian Wells in March, but on Sunday said that he won't know whether he will make it until closer to the tournament.
"We are thinking day-to-day, week-to-week," the 26-year-old Nadal said. "We'll see how I feel before making a decision on where I'll be playing in the near future, it will depend on how the knee improves."