IF HE has told us once, he has told us a hundred times. Rafael Nadal is not the greatest player of all time. Not yet.
But if the Spaniard wins the Australian Open next Sunday he will complete a comeback year that even he could only have dreamed about when he returned to the tour last February after seven months out with knee trouble that threatened to end his career.
There are many roadblocks before that happens, including Frenchman Gael Monfils, who he meets in the third round. But having missed out last year, the 27-year-old has the hunger, the desire and the fitness to give it his all, as he always does. Nadal wants this title badly.
It is a mark of how highly a player is regarded that when he is not around, things are not quite the same. This time last year, he was doing his best to avoid what was happening at Melbourne Park, well on the road to recovery but preferring not to upset himself with thoughts of what might have been. As Novak Djokovic took the title for the third straight year, Nadal was sorely missed, leaving a gaping void in the schedule every other day.
Fast-forward 12 months and the Spaniard is coming off the year of his life, a year in which he defied all expectations to win 10 titles and two more grand slams, at the French Open and US Open, to take his tally to 13. That's one behind Pete Sampras and "only" four behind the all-time leader Roger Federer.
Whisper it gently, but if his knees hold out a few more years, we could be talking about the greatest player of all time.
"When you ask me that in five years and he has won three times more here and Wimbledon, I would say Rafael is the best," Toni Nadal, his coach and uncle and a man not given to verbose statements, said at the French Open last summer.
"For the moment, the greatest player is [Roger] Federer and Rod Laver, not Rafael."
Even uncle Toni, who has been with Nadal since day one, may have changed his mind after his nephew's US Open win in September.
It is a comeback which rivals any other in sport. Lance Armstrong might have had a case before his drugs admission a year ago, and others have produced great things after time away. But Nadal's absence was forced by injury and, in a sport that demands so much of its athletes, as we have seen again in the excessive heat here this week, winning anything when you are not 100 per cent is virtually impossible.
After seven months out, when he chose to convalesce rather than have surgery on his chronic left knee, Nadal looked decidedly rusty on his return on the clay of Vina del Mar, where the altitude did not help. But when he beat David Nalbandian of Argentina to win the title the following week in Sao Paulo and then, a fortnight later, crushed David Ferrer, his fellow Spaniard, to win in Acapulco, his whole attitude changed and the belief flooded back.
There were still dark moments along the way – in Barcelona he felt pain in his knees and wondered if he would have to stop again – but as the claycourt season progressed, with wins in Madrid and Rome yet again, he grew stronger. By the time he arrived in Paris, it seemed inevitable he would win an eighth French Open crown last June, even though he had to squeeze past Djokovic in the semi-final before trouncing Ferrer in the final.
In all, Nadal went 75-7 on the year, with four of those losses coming after the US Open, where he bounced back from a shock defeat at Wimbledon to win the title for a second time and regain the world No. 1 ranking.
This fortnight, he can become the second man in the open era to win all four grand slam titles twice, although Laver completed his second set of slams when he won all four in 1969, having done the same seven years earlier, albeit when tennis was still amateur.
Nadal's recovery was aided by his use of all the latest technology, including plasma-rich platelet theory, also known as blood spinning, which takes his own blood and injects it, in his case, around the knee tendons.
It's a process that was banned in 2010 by the World Anti-Doping Agency but later reinstated after a review found no evidence to suggest it was performance-enhancing.
So strong are the rigours the body goes through on the tour, especially on hardcourts, that players are probably 100 per cent fit only 10 per cent of the season. Nadal says he still has pain occasionally but, crucially, he is able to move without discomfort or restriction, which was not the case in the first month of his comeback. Australian teenager Thanasi Kokkinakis, whose game was dismantled by Nadal in round two, would be the first to testify he is moving well.
In an era when Federer has won 17 grand slam titles, Nadal's achievements are all the more impressive and, if he was not so modest, the Spaniard might point to his 22-10 record against the Swiss as an indication that he deserves to be considered in the discussion for who's the greatest. Britain's Andy Murray, three times the runner-up in Melbourne, has said many times he believes Nadal could end up with more grand slams than anyone.
The Scot was also among those who thought Nadal would return from injury to reach his best level again. "His record on clay was incredible before the injury and I expected him to come back and play well," Murray said. "His consistency has been very impressive."
Federer – whose rivalry with Nadal dominated tennis for years before Djokovic and then, more recently, Murray, came along – was equally impressed, if not surprised, at just how well Nadal played on his comeback. "I'm very happy for him, super-consistent," he said after another battering on clay in Rome last year. "It goes to show that is what other players should do [have some time off] and then come back 100 per cent fit."
Like Federer, Nadal has to do more than his share of media work, a small price to pay, perhaps, for the fame and fortune that has come with his success on the court. Ever courteous, the Spaniard can still get frustrated when asked the same question again and again and hearing him say "I told you one hundred times" is a common feature of his meetings with the press.
But Nadal is also thoughtful, considered and measured in his replies, which would be good in his own language but is even more impressive in his second.
His English has improved immensely over the years and his use of idioms has become something of a game for the media, listening out for the odd new word that he will slip into a press conference, almost unnoticed.
While he still uses the word "illusion", loosely transcribed as "desire" or "dream", he will throw in the odd word that really sticks out, like "prestige" or "status" or even a phrase like "state of affairs".
His spokesman, Benito Perez-Barbadillo, used to translate for Nadal when he couldn't find the right word but his vocabulary has expanded so much that it's almost as if he learns a new word every day. Perez-Barbadillo said he will sometimes correct Nadal's English, when he remembers, but that the improvement is just down to being immersed on the tour, where English is the most spoken language. It doesn't come from television as Nadal does not watch English TV.
Nadal described last year as probably the most emotional of his career but there does not seem to be a danger he will ease up. Playing – and being capable of winning – in the 2016 Olympics is a big goal for him and his attitude on every point, let alone match or tournament, remains unrivalled.
Darren Cahill, the Australian who coached Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi to the world No. 1 spot and now commentates for ESPN, said Nadal has to be considered in the discussion for the greatest ever, thanks to his superior head-to-head record against almost everyone. "Every time when someone says Roger Federer is the greatest ever, he'll probably choke on his food a little bit," Cahill said, on the eve of the Australian Open. "He'll go, 'Excuse me, I have a 22-10 record over the guy you're calling the greatest ever'. It's a great argument."
Should Nadal add this year's title to his 2009 triumph, there will doubtless be some who wonder aloud if he is capable of achieving the holy grail, the grand slam of Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open in the same calendar year. No one's done it since Laver in 1969. But John McEnroe, the last great left-hander before Nadal came along, believes the Spaniard has shown anything is possible.
"If he stays healthy, he can easily win four or five more slams," McEnroe said recently. "No question about it. To me, he's better than ever. It's amazing how badly he wants it. I've never seen anything like it. Let's hope he stays healthy because it will be great for our sport."