ACAPULCO, March 3 (Reuters) - Rafael Nadal's fist-pumping comeback reached a new high with his victory at the Mexican Open on Sunday, giving tennis fans hope the 11-times grand slam champion can return to the top of the game.
In an unexpectedly one-sided match, Nadal blew away three-times defending champion David Ferrer 6-0 6-2 in little over an hour.
But the relatively minor claycourt event in the picturesque Pacific resort city of Acapulco took on far greater significance as the sport's attention focused like a laser on Nadal's left knee and the injury that had forced him to take a seven-month hiatus from the tour.
Few top players have taken that much time off and been able to reclaim their former glory, but Nadal was not focusing on the history books following his latest win.
"I don't know if it's happened before, but what I do know is this has been the most emotional week of my career after such a difficult time," the world number five said in an interview with Reuters.
While there were moments during the week when Nadal visibly limped, he said his knee fared much better than during his earlier comeback events at the VTR Open in Chile and the Brazil Open, both last month.
"There were days in Brazil when it was really bad, and in Chile, during one match as well. But here, it didn't hurt. It just bothered me some," he said. "This was the first week where I could run with complete freedom and no limitations."
Nadal, 26, suffers from chronic knee tendinitis and last September discovered he had a partially torn left patella tendon. He had been absent from tournament tennis since his upset loss in the second round of Wimbledon last year to little-known Czech Lukas Rosol.
Former American tennis pro Brad Gilbert noted that Nadal's latest victory came on the heels of wins over some of the sport's top competitors, including world number four Ferrer.
"Ferrer is playing arguably the best tennis of his career," said Gilbert. "I mean, the guy has been on fire."
Gilbert is perhaps best known for coaching top players Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, and Andre Agassi. He adds that dealing with injuries can be very tricky.
"Andre used to tell me that if you are nursing something that's sore, and you try to play through it, that's the easiest way to hurt something else," he said.
Fellow Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who also was forced to take seven months off the tour following a thigh injury last year, emphasises the physical strain of top flight tennis.
"You have to push your limits every week, every match, for so many weeks back to back," said Robredo, a former top-five player who lost in the Acapulco second round.
"We always have something hurting here or there."
Tennis historian Steve Flink points to past comeback efforts of top players to stress the exceptional nature of Nadal's current run.
"The example I think of is John McEnroe after the 1985 season," said Flink. "He decided to go on a sabbatical. He was gone closer to six months and frankly it did not work out. He was really never the same player he had been when he left."
Flink notes that McEnroe won all of his major titles prior to taking the time off, and he was only in his mid-20s.
Agassi was also sidelined from the tour for several months at the end of 1993 due to wrist surgery, Flink adds, but his absence was not as long as Nadal's.
"His was quite a successful comeback," said Flink, pointing to Agassi's triumphs at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.
Whether or not Nadal, follows the example of McEnroe or Agassi remains to be seen, but early reviews are encouraging.
"If his knee isn't hurting, if it's solid, I think we have Nadal back in the hunt for everything," said Miguel Angel Zubiarrain, a tennis analyst for Spain's Cadena SER radio network.
Nadal is scheduled to play an exhibition match against Juan Martin del Potro at New York's Madison Square Garden on Monday, and will then test his knee further at the California's Indian Wells hard-court tournament.
"In a sense he's reminiscent of Jimmy Connors in the 70s and 80s," said Flink. "It's not necessarily his game that wins the public over, although his game is electrifying at times, but it's his professionalism and his fighting spirit," said Flink.
"It doesn't matter whether its Acapulco or Wimbledon," he added, "he gives it absolutely everything he's got."
Asked what keeps him going, Nadal smiled and paused.
"My motivation is tomorrow, just one day at a time, right?" he said. "I've just got to keep working to be able to do what I enjoy, which is play." (Editing by Alison Wildey)