INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Rafael Nadal has never been one to mince words. He's nowhere near as aggressive off the court as he is on it, and he's a modest man who doesn't like conflict after he strides away from the white lines.
But don't tell him he can't regain the No. 1 ranking or become the most dominant player in the sport again.
There's some suspicion in the locker room that his ultra-physical style is largely the cause of the serious knee injuries that he's sustained over the past year, that they've already taken a severe toll on him and he'll never be able to rumble through the tour again.
But the Spaniard seems to feel it's his time to dominate again and in his first tournament in six weeks, he already feels like he's back in the swing of things.
"I don't need to show nobody how I can play or if I can win a tournament or if I can win a match," said Nadal, who destroyed Mario Ancic in the second round of Indian Wells' BNP Paribas Open. "I did a lot of times in my career, so right now the only thing is keep enjoying, keep playing well, and keep improving my tennis. I know if I have eight months without injuries and I can play when I want to play, not when the body give me the opportunity to play, I think I am playing enough well to be there."
Nadal has never been in this position before, where there are serious doubts about his ability to maintain an elite level. But since his dominant stretch between April 2008 and May 2009 when he won the 13 titles -- including the French Open, Wimbledon, the Olympics, the Australian Open and seven Masters Series including 2009 Indian Wells -- Nadal has gone title-less. It's been largely due to two bum knees which took him out of serious contention during much of the second half of last year and also tripped him up at this year's Aussie Open.
He's only beaten one top-10 player in the past 10 months (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) and has lost to a slew of them, including Robin Soderling, Nikolay Davydenko, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray, whom he was forced to retire against in the Aussie Open quarterfinals in a spectacular contest.
"My feeling was I was ready to win," Nadal said. "I was believing I can win the tournament there. I had the chance against Andy, had break in the first, break in the second, and I was playing at very good level. Both players played really well, and I feel like I was at the top the whole time."
Nadal has cautioned the public to not be too concerned about his future as he's only 23 years old, but there are those, like longtime sports scientist Vic Braden, who say that studies have shown that he puts much more pressure on his knees than any other player. Even though he may still feel like a kid, Nadal is in his ninth year on tour and has already played 502 matches
He says that he isn't concerned that his body will hold up and he feels spry. But how long will that last, given that he knows he needs matches to get into a good rhythm? He has a busy schedule during the next five months and even if he's attempting to impose a more a forceful game to shorten points, he'll never be the type of player that can win the majority of points in one or two shots.
"My game is play with the rallies. I don't want to play serve-and-volley or serve and one shot or ace," he said. "Everybody has to know that. My game is play with intensity, play good rhythm all the time, and try to play long times without having mistakes. When I am ready to play long points without having mistakes, I'm goint to have the chance to play shorter points because I can feel confident with my forehand and play winners before that.
"But my game is my game, and I am not going to change my game."
Fellow player Amer Delic has suffered a similar knee injury and is amazed that Nadal has come back so quickly. While he believes that it will be difficult for Nadal to maintain such a high standard with what appears to be a chronic injury, he still thinks the tour will be owned by Rafa and Roger Federer, when in good health. The two have combined to win 21 Grand Slams since the middle of 2003.
"When he's healthy, he is one of the top two players," Delic said. "It's still only him and Roger winning Grand Slams, If Rafa's name is in the draw, there is always a good chance of seeing him in a Sunday final."
That's Nadal's plan, even though he'll say outwardly that his goal is to just do well -- to whale his forehand, keep his backhand deep and to sharp angles, return ferociously and to serve efficiently. He'll next take on American John Isner, who bested fellow American Sam Querrey 7-6, 6-4. If Nadal plays to the best of his ability, he should win that contest and many others. But the 6-foot-9 Isner has other plans.
"I'm going to have to serve big and take cuts off the ground," Isner said. "I know I can't beat him in extended rallies. He's in phenomenal shape and a great athlete. He's not going to get tired. He has a lot of junk on his ball, so I am going to have to do pretty much everything well. As my ranking and my playing continues to improve, hopefully I'll see him more in a tournament like this. But I think I can give him a run for his money."
Nadal is not going to toot his horn too loudly, but he'll give it a short beep because he knows his reserve and talent level is a notch above the vast majority of the field. Now he just has to stay around long enough to prove that.
"I don't want to be arrogant with this answer," he said. "Because you have to look at the opponent, and the opponent feel the same. But when I play well, I have a good chance to have good results. That's what I can say."