Resilient Nadal as motivated as ever for glory

 - Simon Cambers

For Nadal, as always, everything will depend on his fitness and health in Melbourne.

Rafael Nadal in Melbourne Australian Open 2019©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It is 10 years since Rafael Nadal won the Australian Open for the first, and so far, only time, his win over Roger Federer one of his most stunning displays outside of Roland Garros, where he has won a record 11 times.

Since then, the Spaniard could be forgiven if he thought he was cursed in Melbourne, where injuries have played their part. In 2014, he looked on course to win the title only to suffer a back injury in the final against Stan Wawrinka. In 2015, he went into the event after a wrist injury and having his appendix removed. And last year, he was forced to retire in the fifth set of his quarter-final against Marin Cilic with a leg injury.

Rafael Nadal injured at the 2019 Australian Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

But Nadal has enjoyed plenty of success in Melbourne. In the past seven years, he has made the final three times, including in 2017, when he was denied in five sets by Federer.

For Nadal, as always, everything will depend on his fitness and health. Having had a foot operation at the end of last year,  he pulled out of the ATP event in Brisbane, sparking fears he would not make it to Melbourne. Those fears were allayed when he arrived here, looking fit and strong.

“It is good news that I am here again“

“I feel good,” Nadal said at Melbourne Park. “If I am not feeling good, I will not be here. I have good feelings in terms of the surgery that I have in the foot. I can say is almost done. Then, of course, after surgery, after months without competing, having troubles to practice, of course there is always issues when you come back.

“But nothing new for me. I had couple of ones of this. Just accept the challenges of the body presents and the tennis presents. It is again another season, coming back from a tough period of time, but with highest motivation possible to start another season. Very excited to be back here in Melbourne, starting another one. Of course, it is good news that I am here again.”

Mats Wilander, the champion in Melbourne on three occasions, in 1983, 1984 and 1988, believes Nadal will be a big threat again, even if he will only know for sure what shape he is in once he steps onto the match court. “If he’s less than 100 percent, it’s not worth him playing in Melbourne, and he won’t play if he’s under 100 percent,” he said. “The problem is, he won’t know until he’s sat down on his chair during changeovers for the first half an hour, you don’t know how healthy you are.”

A genuine threat?

Nadal’s victory in the Toronto Masters 1000 last summer was the only hard-court event he completed in 2018, a number of injuries costing him the chance for more glory. But Wilander, who will be commentating for Eurosport throughout the Australian Open, said Nadal was a genuine threat, with the hot weather forecast for the first week playing into his hands.

“With Nadal, it’s not a statistical thing and it doesn’t really matter about his form,” Wilander said. “Sure, hard courts do tend to beat him up, but the faster court will be an advantage for him, the heat will suit him. So I think Nadal has a chance, it’s probably his second favourite tournament in terms of playing conditions.

“I’d be really, really worried about Nadal if I was playing in this tournament if he’s fit. He’s rested his body now since the US Open. He’s really, really close to perfecting his body in terms of fitness and shouldn’t be written off by any means.”

In the hunt for an 18th grand slam title

Seeded No 2, Nadal is in the same half of the draw as Federer, with the two men scheduled to meet in the semi-finals. He begins against James Duckworth, an Australian wildcard, while a third-round battle against Alex de Minaur, the young Australian who won his first title on Saturday in Sydney, could go a long way to showing whether Nadal will be in the hunt for an 18th grand slam title.

The announcement by Andy Murray that he plans to retire after Wimbledon because of his hip injury affected everyone at the tournament. With Nadal a year older, after more than his share of injuries, there were questions as to how long he might go on.

But Nadal, who has been working on his serve, is still as motivated as ever. “I didn't arrive to that point,” he said. I am a positive guy. I always had the feeling that we'll fix it. Of course, there is periods of time that you don't see the light. It is tough.

“My only goal is always to have been keep going. I know that tennis is not forever. I want to do it as long as I can and give myself the best possibilities to fight for the things I am really passionate about.”