His knees better, Nadal eyes a 5th French title

PARIS (AP) — Rafael Nadal sauntered through a hotel lobby in the center of town Thursday, a bounce in his step and a black watch worth more than $400,000 strapped to his left wrist.

The gait is noteworthy because Nadal's much-scrutinized knees are doing quite well — they "are in a very good moment," is the way he put it. The timepiece, crafted by luxury watchmaker Richard Mille with Nadal's input, is noteworthy because he plans to wear it while playing at the French Open.

Paris in the springtime usually is Nadal's time to shine: He won the title each of the first four years he entered the clay-court Grand Slam tournament. In 2009, though, a busy schedule and battered knees took their toll on the Spaniard, who lost at Roland Garros for the only time in 32 matches there.

Now Nadal aims to start a new winning streak at the French Open, which begins Sunday.

"I wanted a lot to be here, and I (am). It's a personal satisfaction for me," Nadal said Thursday, shortly after flying to France from his home in Spain, "because I worked a lot to win another time."

All signs indicate that he is ready to do just that. After going 11 months without a tournament title, he's won three in a row. After dealing with leg and abdominal injuries last year, when Nadal did not defend his Wimbledon title, he is healthy.

Arriving at Roland Garros a year ago, Nadal could not flex his knees and was in a lot of pain, Toni Nadal, Rafael's uncle and coach, said Thursday.

And now?

"At the moment, good enough," Toni Nadal said.

That appears to be something of an understatement. His nephew is 15-0 on clay in 2010, becoming the first man to win at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid in the same season — a trio of Masters titles Nadal called "more than a dream."

That run was capped by a victory over Roger Federer in last weekend's Madrid final, their first head-to-head match in a year. That is one reason Nadal — rather than defending champion and top-ranked Federer — is viewed as the man to beat at the French Open.

Another: Nadal is now 14-7 against Federer, 10-2 on clay.

And yet one more: Federer is only 6-3 on the slow, red surface this year.

Then again, as Federer explained: "Rafa's and my clay court seasons are decided at the French Open, and not before. It's unfortunately — or fortunately — like that."

While third-ranked Novak Djokovic or fourth-ranked Andy Murray might argue differently, Federer and Nadal would seem to be on course for yet another No. 1 vs. No. 2 final at Roland Garros; Nadal beat Federer in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 championship matches. It is significant that Juan Martin del Potro, the lanky Argentine with the massive forehand who upset Federer in last year's U.S. Open final a few months after nearly knocking him off in the French Open semifinals, is sidelined after wrist surgery.

The women's tournament, in contrast, appears to be more wide open, with nine players having divvied up the WTA's most recent nine red-clay tournament titles. Sisters Serena and Venus Williams are back at Nos. 1-2 in the rankings for the first time since May 2003; Justine Henin returns to the site of four of her seven Grand Slam titles after coming out of a 1½-year retirement; defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is in a serious slump.

Federer long ago proved himself skilled on all of tennis' surfaces, and his breakthrough title at the 2009 French Open made him only the sixth man with a career Grand Slam.

Nadal, meanwhile, has shown his versatility and the growth of his game by winning Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Still, even Federer has to acknowledge his rival's supremacy on clay.

"He's been on an absolute tear for the last five years. He's hardly lost any matches — you can almost count those on one hand — and he's only lost one match at the French Open, so I would think he's still the favorite," Federer said. "I would love to say I'm the big favorite, but I don't think it's quite right, even though I won the French Open last year."

Nadal is known on tour as a creature of habit, someone who strictly follows all sorts of rituals before and during matches, right down to the way his drink bottles are arranged near his changeover chair. So it's a bit curious that the left-hander is breaking a pattern by donning his fancy new watch; never before has he played a match with one.

On Thursday, he was still getting used to the idea, saying that while he knows he will wear the accessory on his right wrist on the court and on his left wrist off it, he still hasn't figured out whether he will also wear his customary sweatbands on both arms while competing.

As for whether he worries about the possibility of not quite getting his racket on an opponent's blistering shot, allowing a ball to hit the expensive watch and damage it, Nadal said with a smile: "I am very fast. It's not going to happen."

Not with the way his knees are feeling these days.


AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.