MELBOURNE, January 14 – What a difference the last 12 months have been in the tennis life of Rafael Nadal.At the last Australian Open Rafa was hailed as one of the greats after his acclaimed five-set triumph over Roger Federer in the final.
He was the world number one ahead of the Swiss great and became the first Spaniard to win the Australian title and his sixth major title in only his 20th Grand Slam tournament.
His gripping 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (7/3), 3-6, 6-2 victory in over four hours improved his record over Federer to 13-6 (now 13-7) and the sky looked the limit for the all-conquering young star.
Yet 12 months on and Nadal, still only 23, has relinquished the world number one ranking to Federer and is seeking his first ATP World Tour title in eight months after going down to Nikolay Davydenko in this month’s Qatar final.
The last of his five titles in 2009 came on the Barcelona clay in April.
Injuries have stalled his meteoric career and Nadal admits he goes into the new season in "a little bit" worse shape than he did last year.
After seven years on the circuit, Nadal faces an early fork in the road ahead and next week’s Australian Open will provide a guide as to his current standing in men’s tennis.
"We will see in a few months," Nadal said recently. "Everyone is free to talk. I can say nothing against them. I didn’t win against the best players.
"But that’s tennis — you can’t be all the time 100 percent. I am ready to try and win tournaments, but you never know what will happen. You have to work every day, every week, and wait your moment."
Nadal’s physically-demanding back court playing style may also be catching up with him and injuries last year have raised fears over his long-term future.
He was forced to withdraw from last year’s Wimbledon where he was defending champion with tendinitis in both knees after his 31-match winning streak at the French Open was ended by Swede Robin Soderling in the fourth round.
Nadal was sidelined for nine weeks and after resuming suffered an abdominal injury and played with it at the US Open where he reached the semi-finals.
The popular Spaniard says he may not be at his physical best in time for Melbourne and the coming battles with the men’s elite.
"I believe that this year I’ll arrive a little bit more on the short side than at the start of last season," he said, adding his preparation "has been short but good".
Yet for someone with a commanding playing record against the 15-times Grand Slam champion Federer cannot be easily discarded and all eyes will be on him in the informative opening rounds of the Australian Open.
While usurping Federer for the year-end number one ranking in 2008, Nadal has finished second in the other four seasons, underlining his outstanding competitive qualities.
Nadal holds winning records against all his chief rivals — Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro, except for Russian Davydenko (4-5).