INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Despite winning his second straight tournament on clay last week in Acapulco, Mexico, with a 6-0, 6-2 rout of No. 4 David Ferrer, Rafael Nadal cautioned against expecting that kind of form as he plays his first hard-court tournament in almost a year at the BNP Paribas Open.
"You cannot expect to be back on the tour after seven months and play fantastic," Nadal told reporters during his pre-tournament news conference. "You can't expect to be back on hard court after two or three days and play fantastic in the first round.
"I am not confident that I will be able to [win the title] here after one year without playing on hard,” he went on to say. “I will be trying my best. I'm not practicing a lot. Just playing to keep being in competition. I am very happy to be here in Indian Wells. It is one of my favorite tournaments without any doubt."
A two-time champion at Indian Wells, Nadal has not won a hard-court title since 2010. He arrived on Tuesday after taking part in a hard-court exhibition on Monday at Madison Square Garden in New York. With only a few practices under his belt, he has yet to see how his knee will respond to the transition to hard courts, where there is less margin for any deficiencies in his movement.
"On clay, when I have bad days, the movement is easier than here," he said.
Seemingly fatigued by the string of inquiries into the status of his knee, Nadal says he was encouraged by how it held up during his three-tournament clay swing.
"We'll see how the knee answers on hard," Nadal said. "The results on clay were positive, especially because the knee was feeling better and better every week, especially last week. Now I’m going to try here on hard. We'll see. But I don't know, I cannot say much.
"I played much much better than what I [expected] and in Acapulco I played a fantastic tournament. The final of Acapulco -- forget [that] I was seven months away from tennis -- I played much better than a lot of finals when I am competing at my 100 percent. I played one of my best matches probably ever on clay."
With his dominating form during that Acapulco final and his previous success at Indian Wells, logic would indicate he's a threat here for the title as well. Drawn into Roger Federer's quarter, Nadal could face his old rival before the semifinals of a non-round-robin tournament for the first time since 2004, when the two played for the first time in Miami. The focus may be on the health of Nadal's knee, but he says it's also about shaking off the competitive rust that built up naturally during his absence. He'll open his tournament on Saturday against 20-year-old Ryan Harrison or Japan's Go Soeda.
"If I am back and my knee is in perfect condition anyway, I will [still] need time to re-adapt, to time my game, play well and to be in better shape physically and [in terms of] concentration -- all the things that give you the competition that in seven months you lost," Nadal said.
"I don't consider myself that good that after seven months without competing and without practicing a lot that I would be back and be playing fantastic. That doesn't exist for me. Maybe for others."
A strong performance on hard courts would be a great confidence booster for Nadal, but the bigger questions about his comeback will come when he returns to clay next month to prepare for his title defense at Roland Garros. If his knee allows, Nadal plans to play his usual European clay schedule.
"Forget about the knee, please," he said with a laugh. "I don't know how the knee is going to improve. If the knee stays well, I'm going to play in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. "After these tournaments, I will see if I have a real chance to win at Roland Garros. That's the same every year. The only difference is I have the knee and we don't know how the knee is going to improve over the next few months. But I have to think the knee is going to improve well and I'm going to be ready to compete in those tournaments before the French."