Rafael Nadal on his last legs as he sets out on the comeback trail

Rafael Nadal is back.

While the Spaniard has some way to go to reach the level he was at when he won his last slam – the 2012 French Open – the signs are at least encouraging, even if it is difficult to read from his first two comeback tournaments in South America if he is up to it.

He reached the final in Chile, losing to 73rd-ranked Horacio Zeballos in a tough fight over two hours and 47 minutes, and on Sunday, returning to the scene of triumph in 2005 that kick-started his extraordinary dominance on clay, he won the Brazil Open in straight sets in São Paulo against David Nalbandian, who had one of his weird off-days, by all accounts.

And so, on to Acapulco for a third workout on the dirt he loves. Victory there would be a comfort and reassurance – but doubts linger about the knees that gave up on him at Wimbledon last year, when he was rudely dumped out of the tournament by 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol.

Nadal sounds unsure about trusting his body, which has taken such a pounding over the years – he complained the past few days about the number of hardcourt tournaments, and he was not altogether pleased with the clay in Brazil. Those are negatives in an otherwise pleasing return.

We will know more when he is engaged in the serious business of winning another grand slam, the only tests that matter, and when he goes back to Roland Garros he will not only turn 27 but he will find the opposition in a completely different state to the way he left it seven months ago.

Nadal knows he has a lot of catching up to do against the established front-runners, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray; he might also have to deal with the rising threat of Milos Raonic and, to a lesser extent, Grigor Dimitrov, but also the steadily resurgent Juan Martín del Potro. If he were to enter a tournament alongside those players today, even on clay, not many would back him with confidence to be left standing at the end. That is the scale of his task.

"When the knee is feeling better," he said after winning in Brazil, "I feel like that I can do more of the things that I used to do my entire life. If the pain is bearable like it was today, then it's fine."

All players in this muscular era live with pain; some have more of it than others and there can be no doubt Nadal's injuries are career-threatening. He has a lot of work to do, and much of it will be in public.

After seven months of rehab, now is the time to put that work to the test. It will be the most difficult period of his distinguished career because if he breaks down again, he will surely doubt if it is worth carrying on. There is simply not enough time on the circuit to adequately rest medical problems such as those he has had to live with – except by withdrawing altogether and slipping down the rankings. And there is only so far a player can fall before life becomes more difficult in the draw.

But this is his life, one he chose knowing the demands on his body would be greater than other players would endure. His has been a high-energy career, full of thrills and no little pain. The prospect of early retirement must be a frightening one for him, but he can do no more than ask himself all the difficult questions at the highest level. He has been the most physical of all the leading players over the past decade, a roaring ball of muscle and fire, the very antithesis of Federer, who glides towards his 32nd birthday like a Rolls-Royce. Nadal, a spluttering sports car, can just about see his old rival around the next bend.

"We are going to see how the knee responds and then take stock," he said. "I don't have any problem playing against better rivals because I accept that I can lose. Losing is not a problem for me. I just need time to continue improving and return to a more competitive level."

The player demonstrates in his assessment of where his tennis is at the moment that he is more detached from the process than his many admirers. He has had bad knees since 2007, when he decided to gamble on wearing a built-up shoe to counteract chronic pains in his feet. He was told then he was risking trouble down the line and this is payback time for that decision.

Nadal is ranked No5, behind the top three and his compatriot David Ferrer. If he can break back into the top four without further damage to his knees, and if his spirit remains high, he is capable of great things again. But, as he would acknowledge, it is way too early to make that call.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kevin Mitchell, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 18th February 2013 19.57 Europe/London

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