DOHA // Rafael Nadal is bracing himself for an equally frustrating, injury-hit end to this year as the one he endured last year when he was forced to withdraw from the Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai and Spain's Davis Cup final victory over Argentina.
Nadal is so determined to ward off a mounting list of predators to his cherished No 1 status that he will push his body beyond its limits yet again if he has to. All players had a very short off-season break and everyone, including the Spaniard who possesses one of the most powerful physique, are buckling under the demands of modern day tennis. Nadal, who peaked during the middle of last season winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the space of four weeks, has tried in recent months to fight the system but is now resigned to the fact that he must grin and bear it.
He was certainly grinning as he began his competitive season in the Qatar ExxonMobil Open after what he described as welcome exhibition workouts in Abu Dhabi last week against Nikolay Davydenko and Andy Murray. Whether he can continue to bear it is a different matter. "There is no solution to this," he declared with that ever-present smile. "I can't think of another formula to keep me in the top position. I have to just keep on playing."
Nadal, who won eight of the 18 events he entered last year, including the Olympic gold medal, stressed that he is committing to the bare minimum of tournaments. "Tell me one that I don't have to play," he said as he went through his schedule. This week in Doha is not mandatory but he needs to be playing somewhere to prepare for the Australian Open. Similarly the Queen's Club in London, which he won last year, is crucial to his adaptation to the grass of Wimbledon.
"Otherwise, I don't play any tournaments outside the obligatory ones," he said. "These things happen if you win a lot of matches and I won a lot of matches last year," he reflected on a campaign that saw him rewarded with the top ranking after being placed No 2 to Federer for a record 160 weeks. "You can't have everything so I'm expecting the same again in 2009." Nadal, who kicked off his campaign with the most emphatic of 6-0, 6-1 thrashing to Belgium's Christophe Rochus and Slovakia's Karol Beck 6-1 6-2 yesterday, was grateful to the arrival of Abu Dhabi on to the tennis map last week.
"Two matches there was good preparation for me in a good atmosphere," he said. "That was very important for my rhythm as I try to return to serious action. It means whatever happens here in Doha this week I will have had enough match practice ahead of the Australian Open." Asked how short he was of returning to peak fitness, he responded: "You never know how much improvement you have to make. "It is very early to be thinking if you are going to be OK at the Australian Open. There is plenty of time to sharpen up for that."
Nadal, a surprise semi-final loser to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Melbourne 12 months ago, is focusing on completing a career Grand Slam this year after reaching at least the semi-finals in all four in 2008. firstname.lastname@example.org