Australian Open fan favourite Rafael Nadal has revealed he believed he might never play tennis again as he dealt with a persistent foot injury last year.
The 35-year-old is back to his best at the Australian Open this year, blasting past Russian 28th seed Karen Khachanov in four sets on Friday night to storm into the fourth round.
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It's a far cry from a mindset Nadal held as recently as December, the Spanish superstar said, in which he was questioning his immediate future in the sport.
Month after month of difficult rehab took its took on Nadal, who said there were some days where he could only be training on court for as few as 20 minutes before having to call it a day.
The significant amount of time needed to recover from the nagging injury, combined with the somewhat inconsistent nature of the injury, tested Nadal's patience - but so far in the Australian Open it has paid off.
"I played a very good level of tennis - and if you'd have told me that a month and a half ago, I wouldn't have believed it," he said after his win over Khachanov.
"For a lot of months, I would try to go on court almost every morning but sometimes I was not able to practise for 20 minutes, sometimes for no more than 45, and sometimes okay.
"It was very difficult to predict every single day and I was working with the doctor to find a solution.
"With the foot injury, it was much tougher, mentally, Every day when there's no improvement, mentally it's much tougher.
"But I'm very satisfied with the way I've approached it - I hold the passion and the spirit and that's probably why I'm still here!"
Nadal will now prepare for his fourth round match-up against Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, with the unseeded 33-year-old overcoming Russia's Aslan Karatsev in a four set epic that stretched into the early hours of Saturday morning.
Rafael Nadal opens up about injury recovery at Australian Open
Now looking a genuine threat to lift that landmark 21st grand slam title with his co-record holders Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer watching back at home.
They will have seen a Nadal looking back to something like his warrior best as he's reached the last-16 for an astonishing 15th time and is showing no hangover from the end of his COVID-19-disrupted and injury-hit 2021 campaign.
"I played more aggressive, returning inside the court, and changing more direction with the forehand," he said, after running Khachanov ragged.
"The biggest mistake was to stay too far back on the return in the third set, but I was able to change the dynamics the fourth. Things can't be perfect after being so long off the court, but it's been a very special night."
He is still, though, concerned about the foot injury flaring up again.
"Of course, I still today have doubts because the foot is an injury we cannot fix. So we need to find a way that the pain is under control to keep playing," he said.
Earlier in the tournament he had the crowd in stitches when Jim Courier asked how Nadal kept in good shape at the age of 35.
The Spaniard's response stunned everyone after his first round win over qualifier Yannick Hanfmann.
“I play some golf. Well, honestly, and that’s the truth. I never have been a gym guy, you know," Nadal said, sending the crowd into laughter.
Courier immediately responded: "You're lying".
But, Nadal was adamant.
"I am not a big fan of the gym. I am more a fan of playing sports, different sports," he added.
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