Nadal's 8th French Open title sweeps aside lingering doubts over knee injury
Spaniard's lingering concerns about recovery are all but gone after securing eighth French title
Rafael Nadal harboured plenty of doubts when he returned to tennis in February after a seven-month lay-off because of a left knee injury.
His uncertainty was magnified when he lost in the final of his first tournament to Horacio Zeballos, an Argentine ranked 73rd who had never won a title before.
"I felt a lot of pain in my knee," Nadal said. "I was more worried about other things than [whether I would] win or lose that match in that moment."
Memories of that painful defeat in Chile, along with the worrisome lay-off that preceded it, made Nadal's latest French Open title that much sweeter.
He became the first man to win eight titles at the same grand slam tournament when he beat fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the final 6-3, 6-2, 6-3. Since his return, he has won seven titles in nine tournaments, with losses only to Zeballos and top-ranked Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo. He will take a 22-match winning streak to Wimbledon in two weeks.
Following Sunday's victory, Nadal sat next to the French Open trophy and discussed his comeback. When asked about his troublesome knees, he managed a smile.
"My knee, not knees. I am lucky it is not both. It's only one," he said. "Some weeks I didn't feel well, but the last couple of weeks I have started to feel that my knee is better. I am still going week by week, day by day."
In the past, Nadal has played a Wimbledon warm-up tournament on grass, but the 27-year-old pulled out of Halle this week to rest before heading to London. After years of grinding away on courts around the world, curtailing his practice and tournament schedules are a necessity now.
That did not hurt him in Paris. The King of Clay broke the men's record for match wins at Roland Garros, where he improved to 59-1, with his lone defeat against Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
In the wake of his five-set semi-final victory over Djokovic, the final seemed anticlimactic. But not for Nadal, not when he hoisted his 12th grand slam championship trophy and his first since that long enforced break.
"This one is a very special one," he said. "When you have period of time like I had, you realise that you don't know if you will have the chance to be back here with this trophy another time."
Andre Agassi found it tough enough to win Roland Garros once - to complete his career grand slam in 1999. He predicted that Nadal's title total at the French Open would never be matched. And Agassi said Nadal might not be finished winning in Paris, or at the other majors.
"Hopefully he's smarter with his body moving forward," Agassi said. "And I think he will be because he has felt the price tag of making bad decisions or playing too much, or he knows how fragile it all can be. I think he's going to start to focus a lot more on being ready for these events. This is good for tennis. We need him around as long as possible."
Nadal held his index finger aloft after beating Ferrer. But because he was defending so many points from last year at Roland Garros and Ferrer earned more points by reaching his first grand slam final, Nadal will slip from fourth to fifth in this week's rankings, with Ferrer moving up a spot.
"It's strange, no?" Ferrer said. "I lost the final against Rafael, but I am going to be No 4 and him at No 5."
With a smile he added: "I prefer to win here and to stay No 5."
Nadal may be No 5, but he will be among the favourites at Wimbledon.
"Rafa is one of the possible winners," said his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal. "But how many are there who can win it? Djokovic, [Roger] Federer, [Andy] Murray. At Wimbledon it's very different in that a lot of players can win. At Wimbledon, the surface is different, the ball goes a lot faster. We will see what will happen when we arrive. We'll try and win the first match and see what happens."