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Nadal out to prove top ranking

SHANGHAI ― Ever since he returned this year from a seven-month break from the game, Rafael Nadal has been virtually unstoppable.

He’s won two Grand Slam titles this year and 10 events overall, and despite losing to archrival and now-ex-No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the China Open final in Beijing on Sunday, he remains squarely on top.

That won’t change regardless of the outcome of this week’s Shanghai Rolex Masters, an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event, as he is 3,000-plus points ahead of Djokovic and has already qualified for his sixth appearance in the World Tour Finals at year’s end.

On top of his major titles at this year’s French and U.S. Opens, he has won five Masters 1000 events this year, and would set a record if he also took Shanghai.

Regardless, he says he is coming in with a level head and is simply concentrating on the matches ahead of him.

“Well, I think that winning five (Masters events) is something amazing already. … But Masters 1000s are very difficult tournaments to win,” he said in a press conference Tuesday. “From the first round you have fantastic opponents.

“I consider the Masters 1000s one of the toughest tournaments to play because if you are not playing well from the beginning, it’s very difficult to (get) through. I know in the past this part of the season was hard for me, but I am confident that I can keep playing well.”

With his wide lead in the points race, and with very few points to defend due to his absence this time last year, Nadal is all but certain to finish the year at No. 1 for the third time. But to him, they are “numbers, that’s all.”

“That’s something that I thought, that I will never have the chance to be back there (on top),” he said. “I am today. But that means that I am having probably one of the best seasons of my career.

“It’s good news to be No. 1, yes. But what is great now is the season that I (have) had until here.”

His 2010 season was one of his best ever, winning three of four majors for the first time, but he fell off the radar after losing Wimbledon last year. Upon his return this February, many questions surrounded his future. The chatter last year in Shanghai floated around his noticeable absence, and whether his knee injuries would put him out for the long haul.

“Nobody really knew when he was going to come back, if his knee, knees, were going to be 100 percent again,” 14th-seeded John Isner said Monday after his first victory here, over Colombian qualifier Santiago Giraldo. “He’s answered all those critics. He’s No. 1 in the world again, which is pretty remarkable.”

His long-time rival, former No. 1 Roger Federer, also commended Nadal on his return.

“I mean, one year ago people were saying he might never play tennis again. One year later he’s world No. 1. That’s how quick things can go in tennis,” Federer said.

“I’m really happy that Rafa’s proven himself ― for himself personally, clearly, but also to the rest of the world that you never write off someone like him.”

By Elaine Ramirez

(Korea Herald correspondent)