By Barry Janoff
October 10, 2012: The last time Rafael Nadal played tennis in public was June in London in the second round of the Wimbledon Grand Slam event.
The next time will be . . . even Nadal is not sure.
"There is no timetable. It is day-to-day," said Nadal. "I am working hard every day."
Nadal has been obvious by his absence on the tennis circuit over the past four months due to a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee and subsequent surgery. That forced him to pull out of the 2012 Summer Olympics, the U.S. Open and other tournaments. Formerly ranked No. 1 in the world, Nadal is ranked No. 4 now, behind (in order) Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
Nadal does plan to return to the court, and said he would like to make it sooner than March 4, 2013, when he is scheduled to participate in the 6th annual BNP Paribas Showdown at New York's Madison Square Garden, The exhibition, part of Tennis Night in America, will see Nadal play 2009 U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Potro and will also feature current world No. 1 ranked Victoria Azarenka against Olympic women's gold medal winner and reigning U.S. Open women's champion Serena Williams.
"I'm looking forward to playing in that event at Madison Square Garden, especially because I missed playing in New York during the U.S. Open," Nadal said during a conference call on Tuesday regarding what would be his first career match in "The World's Most Famous Arena." "I'm feeling better now then the first couple of months [after surgery]. My knee was not improving correctly, but now I feel better."
Nadal has on-court goals to aim for prior to the BNP Paribas Showdown. He all but ruled out playing in 2012, which would mean missing the ATP World Tour Finals in London and representing his native Spain against the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup Finals, both in November. "Would that be impossible? No. Would it be very difficult? Yes."
The first Grand Slam of the year is the Australia Opem in January, which Nadal won in 2009. Nadal, who has won 11 Grand Slams during his career, said he is aiming to be competitive in 2013 but stressed again that he is taking his return one day at a time.
"I don't want to put any goals to play [in] a tournament," he said from his home in Majorca during the media conference call. "I am trying not to think that far."
In addition to rehabilitating his knee, Nadal said he watched some of the matches during the Olympics and U.S. Open but found it difficult being an observer rather than a participant. Murray won both the Olympic gold medal and the U.S. Open and now ranks ahead of Nadal, who has said he would want to participate in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The 26-year-old said he has not yet been on the court on a daily basis and has not asked for advice from other athletes who have suffered the same injury and undergone surgery and rehabilitation. "I go every day to the gym, the swimming pool to continue with my recovery."
Nadal also found some time to promote his marketing partners. Last month, he worked with PokerStars.com in a marketing campaign in which he is seen as a faux receptionist working the desk at an upscale country club (pictured). The plan was for Nadal to use his best poker face to convince people that he was not Rafa. In the spot, one man asks, "Do you play tennis?" To which Nadal replies, "Sometimes."
Nadal's deals also include Nike, Bacardi, Babolat, Armani and Kia Motors, putting him in the $18-$20 million annual endorsement range.
"The most important thing is to continue with the treatment. When I don't feel [pain in my knee], hopefully that will happen soon, I will come back on the tennis court."
"I can imagine when I come back I will need time to practice and practice more and more every day. Maybe that will take one month and a half," Nadal said of his current situation. "That is something I will know when my I feel my knee completely without pain when I start to practice.
"The most important thing is to continue with the treatment," he stressed. "When I don't feel [any pain in my knee], hopefully that will happen soon, I will come back on the tennis court."
While Rehabbing Knee, Rafa Nadal Takes On A New Racket
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