Slow offseason benefits Nadal

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When Rafael Nadal arrived at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open to play his first tournament of 2014, he did so after only a minimum amount of practice during the offseason.

Nadal -- who returned to the No. 1 ranking last October for the first time since June 2011 -- revealed the surprise reason his preparation was so limited.

"I did some treatment on the knee after the end of the season, so I didn't play," Nadal said in a pretournament press conference.

"I started two weeks ago, two weeks and a half, and the first week I didn't move myself, just practicing from the middle. So realistic[ally], I was playing for one week or something." According to Nadal, the knee therapy he underwent this time was slightly different than the left knee treatment that put him out of commission from June 2011 to February 2012.

The good news is that Nadal -- who captured a career-high 10 titles last year, including the French and US Opens -- is confident his most recent rehab regimen was even more successful than anticipated.

"This one really made me feel more comfortable because I don't have pain like I had," said Nadal, who plays 25th-seeded Gael Monfils in the third round of the Australian Open. "Even if I was able to play very well [in 2013], is true that I played a lot of days with anti-inflammatories.

"But for the normal life, not talking about playing tennis, with normal life it's true that with that last treatment I feel more comfortable on my knee during the rest of the day.

"I feel that I can do much more normal life than what I did the last year and a half, because at the end I was playing tennis, but for the rest [of the time] I just relaxed." That said, Nadal is still limiting his participation in other physically demanding sports. He'll go out and play golf, and recently took a few soccer penalty shots, but nothing more.

For Nadal, not participating in other sports is actually a huge sacrifice.

"I didn't play football for the last two years and a half," he said. "I love to play football more than anything else, but today I feel it is not the right decision to take risks on that, and especially with the better feeling on the knees." Despite the lack of offseason training, Nadal, who practically seemed like superman last year, looked even better -- fitter and trimmer -- at the start of this year. Though his road to winning the Qatar title in Doha featured some tough competition and some rough performance patches, he never faltered as he marched through the draw.

Nadal's first match of the season -- a 6-2, 7-6 win over Lukas Rosol -- conjured up a few interesting memories for the Spanish matador. Many might remember it was Rosol who defeated Nadal in the second round at Wimbledon in 2012 -- the match that would be his last until February 2013 because of the knee injury.

In the Doha second round and semifinals, Nadal was stretched to three sets by Tobias Kamke and qualifier Peter Gojowcyzk, respectively. In the quarterfinals he played two competitive sets with Ernests Gulbis.

And in the final, Nadal took a 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2 win that did not come easy against Gael Monfils.

Doha was Nadal's 61st career title and marked the first time in his career he'd ever won a trophy during the first week of the season.

"A title is always special in any week of the season," Nadal said. "Beginnings of the season are important because every time you start another season, you start from zero again. Every victory is important, and title today means a lot to me.

"And [I was] playing much better tennis at the end of the tournament than what I did at the beginning." With the Doha trophy in his suitcase, Nadal was looking forward to returning to the Australian Open for the first time since 2012, when he came out on the losing end of an instant epic five-set final versus Novak Djokovic.

With no points to defend this year, the Australian should have nothing but upside for Nadal, who won his lone Australian Open trophy in 2009, and who hasn't dropped a set through two rounds. His much-anticipated opener against Aussie whippersnapper Bernard Tomic turned out to be anticlimactic when the sometimes troubled player retired with a groin injury after dropping the first set. In his second match, Rafa beat down another Aussie, Thanasi Kokkinakis, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4. 

Nadal surprised many, however, by not being in any big rush to get to Australia after winning the Doha title. He had plenty of time to make the Saturday night flight after the final, but did not travel Down Under until Sunday night.

In Doha with his family -- mom, dad, sister and girlfriend -- he couldn't have cared less that his biggest competitors were already in Australia preparing for the first Grand Slam of the season.

"First of all, is fantastic new to be back here in this great tournament after missing last year," Nadal said after his second-round match. "I missed a lot be here. Is a place that I really love so much. I enjoy a lot being here in this city. The organization with the players is, my opinion, the best. They always are improving things. Every year something is new and something is better. Just congratulate them for everything."

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