INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- Last year, the challenge for Rafael Nadal after a seven-month injury layoff was to reel in then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic and reassert his dominance on the ATP Tour. Needless to say, he accomplished that mission, and his hard-court title at the BNP Paribas Open was the early-season result that made everyone sit up and take notice. He finished 75-7 with 10 titles, including the French Open and U.S. Open, and ended the season at No. 1. Piece of cake.
Now the challenge is to stay there, and while climbing his way back to the top was an undoubtedly difficult task given the talent in today's game, maintaining the consistency to stay there is far tougher.
"What is more difficult in the end is to be in the top position for a long time," Nadal said in his pre-tournament news conference on Thursday. "What's more difficult, to win one tournament or play six finals? It's more difficult to play six finals.
"It's like when we are talking about my clay-court season. Everybody says me winning Roland Garros eight times is amazing. OK, yes. But it's much more difficult to win Barcelona eight times, Monte Carlo eight times or Rome seven times. To win all these things, because all the things you have to do it a lot of times, is much more difficult than if you are doing it one time."
The first order of business is to rebound both physically and mentally from his disappointing loss to Stanislas Wawrinka in the Australian Open final in January. Hampered by a sudden back injury, Nadal struggled to compete, let alone play his best tennis. He dodged a question about the status of his back on Thursday -- asked if he was feeling 100 percent, Nadal joked, "Numbers are very difficult for me. I didn't do very well in mathematics" -- but he said the 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 loss to Wawrinka stung him far worse than his epic six-hour final against Djokovic in 2012, when he lost 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-5 after being up a break in the final set.
"It's tough to be there [against Wawrinka] for one hour and 30 minutes knowing you will not win," Nadal explained. "You will not win? That's not the important thing. The worst thing is that you will not compete. When you're losing and competing, that is part of the game. For me, that loss was much harder than in 2012 after six hours. I had that match in the fifth, I fought for six hours, so [I] should be more [disappointed about] that one. [But] this one was much more disappointing because I did everything right to be there and compete for the final and I couldn't."
The 27-year-old Spaniard added: "It's true, Wawrinka played unbelievable. I don't know if I have a chance to win that match because he was playing amazing. But talking about my feeling, the most important thing is that I didn't compete. So it takes a little bit more time [to recover]. I am a great loser. I never think about the losses when [I lose]. Just a few hours and then I feel great and I try to look forward to the next thing. But it's true that [this one] takes a little bit more time." Nadal, who received a first-round bye, opens his title defense against Radek Stepanek on Saturday.