- Alix Ramsay

Rafael Nadal is back at the BNP Paribas Open and he is physically in good shape. He just needs to start winning again.

Is Nadal ready to win this year in Indian Wells?© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

He has played only two events so far this year and reached the final of one (the Australian Open) and the third round of the other (in Acapulco). Yes, of course he would have like to have won both trophies but, then again, he would probably quite like to win the lottery, too. Given the four, injury-plagued months he endured prior to going to Melbourne, he has done all right.

 

"I managed to still be competitive"


“It happens,” he said. “In Acapulco, I lost a match [to Nick Kyrgios] that I should have won but these kind of things happen. But, more or less, I should not be unhappy after all the things I went through the last four or five months to be here.”

The trouble started at the US Open when his old knee problems flared up again. When he was ready to come back from that, he hurt an abdominal muscle. When he thought he would have a bit more time in the off-season, he needed ankle surgery. And when he got over that and started to play again, he picked up a leg injury. That he was able to reach the Australian Open final without dropping a set was remarkable; that he was not yet ready to face an imperious Novak Djokovic when he got there was hardly a surprise.

“There are too many issues that happened to my body the last year and a half,” he said. “But I managed well to still be competitive so that’s important for my mental health, too: that I am competitive when I am ready to play. Yes, of course, this is an important part of the season for me but the health is very, very important.”

 

Rafael Nadal at practice in Indian Wells 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Real work is next month

This is the beginning of the Sunshine Double, two almost identical hard court events on opposite coasts of the United States. This week it is Indian Wells; at the end of the month, it is Miami. Nadal has won three Indian Wells trophies, the last in 2013, and while he has never won in Miami, he has reached five finals. But as the season inches ever closer to the clay court swing, this part of the year is only important-ish. The real work will begin next month on the red dirt in Europe.

His draw in California is littered with obstacles for the second week: a certain Mr Federer could await him in the semi-finals, while the young, strong lads like Denis Shapovalov, Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov all lurk in his half of the draw, all ready to cause an upset and make a push for glory.

At the moment, Nadal sits at the top of the Masters 1000 list with 33 titles to his name. But Novak Djokovic – his projected final opponent if they both live up to their seedings – is waiting to overtake him with 32 tiles amassed so far. And Djokovic looks to be in devastating form at the moment.

 




No matter, Nadal is just glad to be back in Indian Wells. The conditions are tricky for everyone: the thin desert air makes the ball fizz and fly that little bit faster and the gusting wind can cause problems at any given moment. But Nadal likes it here, even if he is no fan of the tournament’s unofficial title: “the fifth Grand Slam”.

“It’s not good to consider it the fifth Grand Slam because Masters 1000s are Masters 1000s and Grand Slams are Grand Slams,” he said. “We need to know the difference.

Rafael Nadal and Stan Wawrinka chatting and laughing together in Indian Wells 2019.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Not a fan about the fifth Slam

 

“I love being here and not being in a big city. I love the calm that we have here in the desert comparing to when we play in the big cities (that’s almost all the time). And the organisation is one of the best without any doubt.

“We don’t need to call it the fifth Grand Slam. This tournament is big enough to be important by its own name.”



Having won 17 Grand Slams to add to those 33 Masters 1000s, Nadal knows the difference between the two. Should he win next weekend, it will be a very pleasant bonus after what has been a difficult start to the year.

But it is the next Grand Slam event that matters most: for Nadal, all roads lead to Roland Garros, even if that road starts 6,000 miles away in a sleepy golf and tennis town in the Californian desert.