Monaco - Rafael Nadal is wary of saying he's fully recovered
from a troublesome right thigh injury as he defends his Monte Carlo Masters
The top-ranked Spaniard only recently returned to action at
the Davis Cup, after a recurrence of the injury forced him out of the Mexico
Open and then Masters tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami last month.
Those setbacks followed his crushing disappointment at the
Australian Open, where he was forced to retire in the fifth set of the
quarter-final against Marin Cilic.
Nadal had expected to make his comeback in Acapulco, but the
injury flared up again during a last practice session with French player Adrian
Mannarino. Looking back on it Sunday, the 16-time Grand Slam champion said it
was mentally "even harder than what happened in Australia" because he
was so convinced he would play.
"I did all the things the right way, practicing one
week before, to be ready for the tournament and then it happened," Nadal
told reporters. "You're in Acapulco, you fly all the way ... Then the
doctors told me: 'You will not be able to play in Indian Wells, Miami.' So that
was hard to accept."
So was the painstakingly dull recovery which followed.
"I was unable to do any physical work because the psoas
(muscle) was affecting all the movements I could do," he said. "It
was a boring time because I don't like to be doing nothing."
Nadal wasn't bored last weekend, however, winning both his
Davis Cup singles against Germany without dropping a set. Although he appears
to have slotted straight back into his clay groove, his Acapulco setback leaves
him circumspect about speaking too soon.
"Well it happened twice, so you never know," he
said. "Of course it stays a little bit in your mind."
Nadal begins his bid for a record-extending 11th Monte Carlo
title with a second-round match against either Aljaz Bedene or Mirza Basic. He
needs to win the tournament or Roger Federer will reclaim top ranking in their
seemingly endless fight for supremacy. They have won the last five Grand Slams,
three for Federer.
But with 20-time major winner Federer again skipping the
clay season, Nadal must wait a while longer to try and avenge a run of five
straight defeats to the Swiss star.
He took a swipe, although an amiable one, at Federer.
"He says he will love to play against me again in best
of five sets on clay, and I thought he would play Roland Garros," Nadal
said, with a wry smile. "A few days later he says he will not play in one
(clay) event, so there's a little bit of controversy with that."
Nadal's victory at Monte Carlo last year made him the first
men's tennis player in the Open era to win the same title 10 times. He then won
a 10th French Open.
He feels at home at the picture-postcard tournament with its
centre-court perched over the glittering Mediterranean sea. The Monte Carlo
tournament launched his career as a scraggly-haired 16-year-old in 2003,
although the sun had long set when he beat defending French Open champion
Albert Costa under floodlights in the second round.
"I always feel good when I am here," Nadal said.
"It's been a love story."
The only Monte Carlo final that the 31-year-old Nadal has
lost was to Novak Djokovic in 2013. Djokovic added another Monte Carlo title in
2015, during his pomp.
But the former top-ranked Serb looks a shadow of the player
he was. Hindered by a persistent right elbow injury, his ranking has tumbled to
Earlier this month, Djokovic stopped working with Andre
Agassi and Radek Stepanek - the latest in a series of coaching changes for the
12-time major champion.
After significant rest during the second half of last year
and a medical procedure in February, Djokovic spoke confidently of being
pain-free - at long last.
Then, he lost his first match at the Miami Open in straight
Djokovic used to be the player everyone was chasing. He even
beat Nadal during a glorious run of seven straight finals and holds a 26-24
winning record against him.
They have won a record 30 Masters each, but Nadal looks the
more likely to get No 31.