If anything has defined Rafael Nadal's career from his days as a promising youth in the relaxed climes of Mallorca to the top of the tennis heap it has been the controlled fury with which he attacks the game.
His ferocious cuts at the ball are matched only by his unrelenting retrieving skills — qualities that by 23 have earned him six Grand Slam titles, a No. 1 ranking and unofficial title of King of Clay.
"I always play all the things with big passion," Nadal says of his inexorable will to win.
That fierce style also has taken a toll. Since 2008 Nadal has struggled with repetitive stress injuries, mostly from the waist down.
Nadal again looks hungry and invincible on the eve of the French Open, which begins Sunday. As he pursues a fifth crown in Paris, he has to prove his increasingly fragile knees can withstand the lead-up to and two-week grind of a major.
Tendinitis in both knees forced the Spaniard to curtail his 2008 season. After a blistering start to 2009 — five titles, including the Australian Open, his last major win — the same problem forced him out for two months in the heart of the season and prevented him from defending his Wimbledon crown.
In January, his Achilles' heel — the knee — flared again. A small hamstring tear at the back of his right knee forced him to abandon his defense at the Australian Open in the quarterfinals. It sidelined him for a month.
After rest, therapy, anti-inflammatories and a more cautious approach to scheduling, an ostensibly healthy Nadal returns to the place of his biggest disappointment: a fourth-round exit last year after four consecutive titles at Roland Garros (2005-08).
With convincing wins at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid — where Nadal avenged a loss to No. 1 Roger Federer in last Sunday's final 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) — the Spaniard ended an 11-month title drought and is 15-0 on clay this season. Once again he enters the French Open as a heavy favorite.
Unlike years past, Nadal has played a lighter schedule heading into Roland Garros. It is not an easy choice for a player who likes to grind foes into submission.
"His game is based on repetitions, rhythm and the confidence of winning," Tennis Channel analyst and former pro Justin Gimelstob says. "He needs to feel the work and make it a part of him. So it's tough for him to go into a tournament without a lot of reps."
At this fragile stage of his career, learning to temper his unyielding style and need for match play is probably a good one.
"For me, the most important goal is to play feeling healthy and play my best tennis," says Nadal, who sat down with USA TODAY earlier this spring.
Pain, on and off court
A year ago, Nadal showed up in Paris with the usual cache of clay-court hardware plus his first major on hardcourts with his Australian Open title.
By the time he reached Paris, Nadal — who won titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome and, despite aching knees, willed his way to the Madrid final where he lost to Federer— was exhausted and increasingly tentative.
"I arrived at the most important part of the season in my worst condition," Nadal says.
In Paris, his shots lacked depth, his movement was subpar and he was defeated by Sweden's Robin Soderling.
"I lost there, and I didn't feel enough well to try to win another title," Nadal says. "That's always difficult to accept."
Forced to sit out two months, Nadal returned to Mallorca to fish, hang with family and friends and recover. Federer, meanwhile, won a record 15th major at Wimbledon and reclaimed the No. 1 ranking he had lost to Nadal.
It didn't help that Nadal, who still lives at home, was dealing with his parents' separation, mostly from afar.
"When something changes in your life it's never easy," Nadal says of the painful breakdown of his close-knit family.
Nadal, renowned for his lethal focus, might have carried the off-court troubles onto the court.
"He went through a very hard time, not only with injuries but with personal issues, which are worse in my opinion and affected him more than anything else," says Jose Higueras, a former top-10 player from Spain and friend of Nadal's who now works for the USTA developing American prospects.
If Nadal lost some of the ingrained self-belief that comes from winning, he never said. But his results indicated something was missing, including a stretch of 11 tournaments and nearly a year without a victory.
Nadal admits that his increasingly frail knees got into his head and might have affected his ability to go all-out.
"You are always afraid a little bit about everything when you had a few injuries," he says.
Nadal and his team are making sure he pays more heed to his body this time.
He missed four weeks of this season after Australia and played three clay warm-up events this year rather than his usual four, skipping his backyard event in Barcelona to rest after tearing through the field in Monte Carlo. Overall, he enters the French Open with seven tournaments, down from an average of almost 9.5 the last four years.
As always, it was a family decision.
"I suppose we'll play a little less," Nadal's uncle and lifelong coach, Toni, told reporters last month. "(The decision to skip Barcelona) was also related to the need to prepare for the upcoming season, which is hard, and avoid having problems with Wimbledon and Roland Garros. The important thing for Rafa is not the ranking, but to be in good shape."
On Thursday, Toni said Nadal couldn't flex his knees last year in Paris, when his 31-match winning streak at the French Open ended. This year, Toni said, his nephew's knees are "perfect."
Still, questions about his long-term durability persist. Have the qualities that made Nadal great predisposed him to chronic injuries before his 24th birthday next month? Will it shorten his ability to remain atop the game?
Graeme Lauriston, who oversees the Sports Therapy Center at the IMG/Bollettieri Academy in Florida, says Nadal's injuries are not unique. Many of the players he sees are experiencing hip, knee and ankle injuries at a younger age.
"You see a lot of tendinitis in knees," Lauriston says. "That's first indication that there is too much stress through that area."
Why is it happening?
Experts say changes in racket and string technology that allow players to take huge swipes at the ball, often from awkward positions, while dashing from side to side for hours are the culprits.
"Swinging from all extremes of positions puts abnormal loads on hips, knees and back," cautions Gary Windler, an orthopedic surgeon who advises the ATP and USTA. Windler says two-thirds of the injuries in the men's game are from overuse.
Though no one can say whether Nadal will end up shortening his career, experts say there is cause for concern.
It can be hard to completely get rid of scar tissue once it develops, says Anthony Luke, a sports medicine specialist at University of California-San Francisco medical center.
Rest between events is key, and in that regard Nadal and his team are taking measures.
"He has to be smarter about his schedule," says Larry Stefanki, who has coached a number of top players and now works with Andy Roddick, another big-bodied player who likes to scrap from the backcourt but earns easy points on his serve.
Nadal, for his part, seems at peace with his path.
"It's difficult to say now," says the 6-1, 188-pound Spaniard, who turned pro at 15. "I am happy how I did (it) … I feel lucky to be in my position. It seems a lot of times when people talk or speak about me I am 28-29 years old, and I only have 23."
While players can tweak strategies and change technique, wholesale changes to Nadal's game seem unrealistic.
"I have my style," Nadal says. "I have my way to play. That is impossible to change."
Still, he has shown the ability to adapt. Under his uncle's tutelage, Nadal has learned to dictate more instead of chasing ball after ball to wear opponents down.
He can flatten out his backhand, end points at the net and he has beefed up his first serve. He no longer lurks 10-15 feet behind the baseline, especially on faster surfaces, to steal time and create more opportunities.
"I am playing aggressive because I think when I play aggressive my game is better, not because of the (injuries)," he insists. "I'm always trying to finish my matches as quick as possible."
Federer, perhaps more than anyone, recognizes the importance of having Nadal present. His absences have meant that the tandem — who have met in a number of epic Grand Slam finals — have met just twice in the last year and gone 16 months without playing at a major.
"It's important that a guy like Rafa stays in the game," Federer says.