Back from a knee injury, the Spaniard is realistic about where he is at in tennis ahead of his first match in seven months, writes Steve Elling.
No faulting Rafael Nadal for being wary on comeback from injury
You can say this for Rafael Nadal: he is certainly not hiding from it.
With the eyes of the tennis world upon him, the 11-time grand slam winner, on the shelf for seven months with an increasingly fretful tendon issue in his left knee, stepped off a plane in Chile this week and laid out the hard facts for all to digest.
"My knee is much better, and this is the most important thing now because there's no risk of a big injury," he said as he arrived at the airport for his first event since his shock second-round defeat at Wimbledon last June.
"But it is still bothering me, and it will keep me from playing all the time, which I would like to do."
As if on cue, he served up a perfect straight line, ready for a collective overhead smash.
"You have to start somewhere," he said.
One of three ATP 250 events being staged this week, the VTR Open in the ocean-side town of Vina del Mar probably ranks third in terms of impact – at least, before Nadal arrived in Chile for the first time.
The world No 12 Juan Monaco of Argentina is the defending champion, but it is Nadal who has turned the tournament on its ear; he was met at the airport by the country's president, Sebastian Pinera.
The event is the first of three clay-court tournaments in Latin America that Nadal hopes to play before heading to Paris to defend his French Open title.
He has won seven titles at Roland Garros, but the status of his knee, which has already prompted multiple withdrawals and false starts, will be more important than any short-term results.
Nadal plays at one speed – full throttle. Any decrease in horsepower because of a lack of mobility will be obvious when he opens against a qualifier or the world No 94 Guido Pella.
"It's been months, seven months, since I have competed," Nadal said. "Anything can happen. I'll try not to let it happen, but you have to be prepared for everything and be patient."
He has already withdrawn from events in Abu Dhabi and Melbourne over the past five weeks but is set to play a doubles match with Juan Monaco tomorrow and his first singles match on Wednesday.
"I'm here to give it the best I have right now," he said. "And hope the knee holds up."
Unbridled optimism, it is not. His future looks as fuzzy as a tennis ball. "My objective now is to go week by week and do the best I can in every game I play," he said.
After dropping to world No 5 during the lay-off, tennis observers soon will learn whether his best is still good enough.
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