In reaching the final of the Australian Open and exhibiting excellent form throughout the tournament, Rafael Nadal has tennis fans wondering if he can once again be viewed as the favourite for Roland-Garros. As the Spaniard returns to action in Acapulco, all bets are off.
Do Rafael Nadal’s exploits in Melbourne make him the favourite for Roland-Garros?
On the last two occasions that Rafael Nadal has competed in the Australian Open final, in 2012 and 2014, he went on to triumph at Roland-Garros four months later. Could this be a good omen for ‘Rafa’, who came within three games of lifting yet another coveted trophy on the hard-court surface of Melbourne Park, in his first Grand Slam final since Roland-Garros in 2014?
As well as his enhanced results, the Spanish legend’s physique, mental attitude and general performances since the turn of the year have all improved markedly. And each time that those three factors have come together, he has emerged victorious from Roland-Garros. As Nadal approaches his 31st birthday, which he may end up celebrating in Paris once more, on 3 June, the nine-time French Open champion appears to be well on track to add a tenth title to his impressive CV.
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There is still some time to go until the start of the prestigious tournament, however, and the Mallorcan has not yet made his competitive return from a self-imposed and well-deserved break after his remarkable Australian campaign. But his efforts at the Mexican Open in Acapulco, and then the Indian Wells Masters and Miami Open, which serve as the traditional openers for the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 season, are unlikely to nullify the overall impression left by Nadal in recent weeks. In fact, the opposite may well occur; fans will see a player who has not only regained his elite status, but who has also improved various areas of his game – which, again, augurs well for his chances of excelling at Roland-Garros.
These minor changes – in Nadal’s case, slight adjustments to his serve, return and backhand, which have given his game an even more attacking aspect – are what make the difference at the very highest level. “There’s no doubt I played high-quality tennis throughout January,” he said after his tight loss to Roger Federer in the Australian Open final. “And that’s great news as far as I’m concerned. My prime objective is to continue in the same vein. I’m convinced that, if my body is in good condition, I’ll have a great year, because I feel like I’m playing pretty well.” Of course, for Nadal, a “great year” inevitably includes another victory in Paris.
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This statement proves that, as well as retrieving his exceptional skills, he has also rediscovered his warrior-like mindset, which had been one of his greatest assets until it waned in recent years. “I don’t think I’m an arrogant person; I’ve always doubted myself,” he remarked in Melbourne. “That’s understandable. Even when I was winning, it was the same. But it’s a good thing, because when you have doubts, you tend to put in more work.” This may explain the improvements observed in his game, which have enabled him to compete at the top once again. At the end of last year in Shanghai, just before he brought the curtain down on his season, his core message was not all that different. “I’m lacking in confidence,” he said.
Tenth for Toni?
“Over the years, Rafael has been troubled with wrist, knee and foot problems,” Toni Nadal said a few days after the Australian Open. “But since he’s been able to play without pain, he’s got back to a good level. In Australia, he wasn’t far off his best, from both a mental and tennis point of view.” Toni, Rafael’s uncle and long-time coach, dropped a bombshell in mid-February by announcing that this season would be his last in his current role – a decision, supposedly made prior to the trip down under, that caught his nephew off-guard.
“Recently, I’ve found myself thinking that things were getting harder and harder,” explained ‘Tio’ Toni to El Español after the fact. “Now, I’ve got the opportunity to coach at the Rafa Nadal Academy and that’s something I’m very happy about. Rafael will be in excellent hands with Carlos Moya.”
For a sensitive player like Nadal, who is best able to express his talents within the confines of an extremely specific routine, anyone other than Moya would have doubtless been a difficult change to incorporate. But ‘Charlie’, a fellow Mallorcan, is a friend, and a former Roland-Garros champion (in 1998) to boot. All of these factors will ensure that the changeover is relatively seamless, especially as Toni will continue to coach until the end of this season, which should aid Rafa’s resurgence. Could all of this lead to the capture of La decima, his tenth French Open title? It would certainly provide a magnificent leaving present for Toni.
Roger Federer, who managed to come back from a break down in the fifth set to clinch an extraordinary final in Melbourne, would not be surprised by such a scenario. The now 18-time Grand Slam champion also enjoyed seeing his old rival relive his glory days. “I just think he’s an incredible player,” said the Swiss veteran. “He can produce shots that nobody else can. When you can do that, you’re unique and special. He also has a lot of courage. He has the physical strength and mentality to maintain a really high level of play for a few years yet, and for hours and even weeks at a time.” For the two weeks of Roland-Garros, in ‘his’ tournament, on his preferred surface, Nadal may well do as Federer describes, and perhaps even more.
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