Rafa Opens the door for rivals to end Aussie reign

Nadal has admitted he may be just short of his best form going into the season's first Grand Slam. (AFP)

Defending champion Rafael Nadal has declared himself fighting fit for the rigours of a Grand Slam, but the world No2 is not certain he will be back to his best at the Australian Open this week.

Nadal, whose five-set defeat of Roger Federer in last year's final left the Swiss maestro in tears, has struggled to reach his all-conquering best since knee tendonitis forced him off the Tour for two months after the French Open at Roland Garros in June.

"I'm playing much better than what I did the past four months," said the six-time Grand Slam champion yesterday. "I'm ready to try to play my best tennis. [But] I don't know here."

Since returning to the Tour at the Montreal Masters in August, Nadal has not won an ATP title and has looked short of his fist-pumping best, although he reached the semi-final of the US Open where he was beaten by eventual winner Juan Martin del Potro.

However, after crashing out with three successive losses at the ATP Tour Finals in London in November, Nadal said he needed time out to recharge his batteries and find some confidence.

He helped Spain to a Davis Cup victory against the Czech Republic in Barcelona last month and has warmed up for the Australian Open with a win at the Capitala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi – an exhibition tournament – and reached the final at the Qatar Open where he lost to Nikolay Davydenko last week.

"The only way to have confidence is winning matches, and winning important matches," continued the Majorcan-born star. "I did that in Abu Dhabi; I did that in Doha. So now I'm really in the right way."

The Spaniard has drawn 78th-ranked Peter Luczak of Australia in the first round and could face world No5 Andy Murray in the quarter-finals in Melbourne.

Nadal, who allowed himself scarcely a day's break after the Davis Cup ended on December 6 before plunging back into training, said there were no question marks over the strength of his knees.

He also shrugged off not having outright favourite status, saying that people had been telling him he was favourite at the French Open every year before his 31-match unbeaten reign was surprisingly broken by Swede Robin Soderling.

"On hard court there's a lot of very good players and being No2 of the world, probably I am not the favourite, but I am one of these ones, you know," said the 23-year-old.

"Finally, the important thing is who plays better on court. We will see what happens [this] week."

 

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