Rafael Nadal has revealed he feared "every single day" during his injury lay-off that he'd never return to tennis - but now the rejuvenated old master is dreaming again.
Savouring his very best tennis since returning from a foot injury to blast into the last-16 of the Australian Open, Nadal couldn't help but reflect again with a smile on an almost miraculous change in fortunes from six weeks ago.
"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," the rejuvenated 35-year-old said after he had offered the Rod Laver Arena a touch of 'vintage Rafa' in taming the tough Karen Khachanov 6-3 6-2 3-6 6-1 on Friday.
For back in December, Nadal admitted, he was fearing for his very future in the game.
Asked on Eurosport if he had doubts over whether he'd ever compete again, Nadal smiled: "Every single day.
"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!"
Not just 'still here' but 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.
Next up in the last-16 will be a battle of the lefties with unseeded Adrian Mannarino, who needed over four-and-a-half hours to dispose of Aslan Karatsev in four sets and admitted to the few spectators still awake after their 2.30am finish: "I don't feel good..."
And a record of two matches, two losses and no sets won against Nadal won't make the Frenchman feel much better either.
Australian Associated Press
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