Rafael Nadal is set to play his first event since the Australian Open. (EPA)
Five For Friday is an end-of-the-week roundup of interesting tidbits from my notebook. This week I'm in Indian Wells for the BNP Paribas Open.
1. Positive Rafa: Rafael Nadal burst into a wide smile after saying Thursday that he “improved a lot” during his five-week layoff following his loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final. I'm not so sure he's kidding, though. The Spaniard seems to have escaped from the dark cloud that has been hovering over him the last six months, and his performance in Melbourne (as well as the much-needed rest) has buoyed his spirits.
"In general, it was a very positive tournament for me," Nadal said. "I did a lot of things much better than in 2011. I felt [I played] with more energy, with more rhythm in my legs, more power on the shots. I feel like I can hit more winners than before. That's always positive on your mind. You hit winners, you can win more free points. That makes a big difference in my game."
Despite evidence to the contrary, Nadal insists that it's not all about Djokovic, who has won seven consecutive meetings. After losing to Djokovic in last year’s U.S. Open final, Nadal said he was going to spend the offseason finding solutions to beat the Serb. But six months later, Nadal is back to the party line: He wants to improve for improvement's sake.
"I want to improve for me," Nadal said. "I don't want to improve to beat Novak, to beat Roger [Federer], to beat anybody. I try my best every day to improve, to be a better player year by year. If that's enough to beat Novak, fantastic. If not, I’m going to keep working. When I wake up every morning and go on the court, I don't think about Novak. I think about things I need to keep improving. That's worked well throughout my career, all this time, and maybe now it's not working anymore but hopefully yes. That's the way that my mind works. I don't have a spirit of revenge."
2. Grown-up Andy: Andy Murray is maturing right before our eyes, and with that maturity comes perspective. Asked about all the negative press surrounding his inability to win a Grand Slam title, the 24-year-old Scot said he's already achieved more than he ever thought he would.
"If I stopped playing now and I actually looked back to when I was a child when I started playing, I would have signed up for my career, no question," said the fourth-ranked Murray, who has 22 career titles. "I would never have thought I would have got to this level. I'm starting to grow up, starting to mature, starting to be calmer on the court. I'm very happy with what I've achieved so far but I'd like to achieve more as well."
3. Regular Li: Two years ago, the WTA's marketing campaigned centered on a single question: "Are you looking for a hero?" That slogan has been scrapped in favor of "Strong is beautiful," which seems to suit Li Na just fine. If China is looking for a hero, it better look elsewhere.
"Tennis is my job," Li said. "I just play for myself. Of course, after I win the French Open, everyone thinks, 'She should win every tournament.' I'm not a hero. Now I see a lot, I have more experience. I just come to the court, doesn't matter win or lose. I'm just myself. I'm not the hero for the country."
Li described 2011 as "a tough year" even though it included a career milestone, her title at Roland Garros. She's had to learn to deal with criticism from fans at home, who seemed to think that her success was a fluke.
"After the French Open, I didn't do well and people think, 'Yeah, she's just lucky she won the French,'" Li said. "And I was like, 'Yeah, yeah, I was lucky.' I mean, I beat seven [players] in a row, I beat four of the top 10. How can I be lucky in one tournament? Some people just really don't understand the sport."
4. Tennis or bust: The large practice field at Indian Wells is home to many things. Players jog and stretch, people close to the players sun themselves and of, course, impromptu soccer games break out. Djokovic has been a regular on the pitch and Nadal joined him on Thursday. Don't hold your breath waiting to see Roger Federer, though. He has no time or patience for anything other than tennis these days.
"I think every player goes through a phase like that where they realize it's too important to me and my career," Federer said Wednesday. "I don't want to get injured doing something stupid."
It's a funny quote to reconsider after watching Nadal sprint around heading balls and trying bicycle kicks that left him flat on his back.
5. Parting shots: Agnieszka Radwanska has tried every flavor cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory and her favorite is chocolate coconut. ... Murray says he won't be back on Twitter anytime soon. ... Petra Kvitova says she's good friends with doubles partner Victoria Azarenka, though Azarenka admitted they aren't Facebook friends. ... Li has one of the most blinged-out Rolex watches I have ever seen. Have something that you think needs to be addressed? Feel free to tweet or email me.