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Australian Open 2017: Analysing Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal's chances

The two fan favourites will play their first Grand Slam since early 2016 after both taking 6-month breaks from the sport.

13 Jan 2017, 21:49 IST

Only days away from the Australian Open, the year-opening Grand Slam at Melbourne Park, this is the first time in 13 years that neither Roger Federer nor Rafael Nadal has been in the top 4 ranked players. With both players taking respective breaks from the sport halfway through the 2016 season, the former No. 1s have seen a significant drop in the rankings. 

Federer, as a result of his protected ranking, is seeded 17th at the tournament, while Nadal is seeded 9th.

Rafael Nadal

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 13:  Rafael Nadal of Spain plays a backhand during a practice session ahead of the 2017 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 13, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Nadal is the ninth seed in Melbourne and a one-time champion

The talented Spaniard, who has 14 Grand Slam titles to his name, earned only one of them at Melbourne Park and last year saw not only his most ignominous Australian Open exit – but also his lowest ever Grand Slam result, exiting in the first round after a loss to Fernando Verdasco. Following that, he withdrew from his favourite Grand Slam – the French Open, all the more disappointing for himself and his fans given the stellar clay court season he had had just prior. 

Then, Nadal revealed he would also miss out at Wimbledon. 

What happened at the US Open was plain for everyone to see: a young sensation named Lucas Pouille wrested, and then held control from the Spaniard to oust Nadal from the US Open in 2016. All in all, the past calendar year has been nothing but a dismal one for the King of Clay. 

And Nadal will not at all have it easy this time around, with difficult opponents early on. First up, he will face Germany’s Florian Mayer, who has been in good nick in the 2016 season. Mayer won the title at the ATP500 Gerry Weber Open in Halle, Germany last year, defeating the talented Alexander Zverev – who ousted Roger Federer from the tournament – in the finals. 

Mayer has also had doubles successes, and is riding on that wave – one that Nadal will need to be careful with. The two have played each other three times before, with Mayer winning one of those contests. Notably, Nadal’s wins against Mayer have never been easy, with the Spaniard stretched to the limit every time. 

Should he beat Mayer, Nadal will take on former Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis. The Cypriot ace, a former top-10 player, has, like Mayer, only beaten Nadal once in their rivalry, but never gone down easily. 

Nadal has won eight of the nine matches the two have played against each other, but only two of those eight wins have been in straight sets, with Nadal dropping a set against Baghdatis six times. This could be a tricky one to navigate for the Spaniard. 

The two have only met at Grand Slams once before, a decade ago. 

Following a lull in his career, Baghdatis returned to the top 50 in late 2015, and is now a top 40 player. He’s also bringing out some great power-hitting, and finished fairly well at the quarter-finals of the ASB Classic in New Zealand to start off his year. It is also to be noted that last year, the Cypriot, despite being unseeded at the Australian Open, went on to put up a solid four-set fight against another former finalist, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

And in the third round lies Nadal’s biggest danger – 19-year-old Alexander Zverev, tipped by everyone – players, pundits, peers – as the definitive future World No. 1, the ‘Future of Tennis’, a potential GOAT. 

And with good reason. The young German is more than a force to be reckoned with, and in the last calendar year has defeated Roger Federer twice. The youngest player in the ATP top 50, he became the youngest player in a decade to enter the top 20 – matching Novak Djokovic in 2006. 

Last year, Zverev joined an elite club of ATP players who won Tour level titles as teenagers, lifting the trophy at St. Petersburg soon after the US Open – beating the recently crowned US Open champion Stan Wawrinka for it. 

Zverev is not a new opponent for Nadal; the pair met at Indian Wells last year, and although the Spaniard won that contest, it was not an easy way there for him. Given the fact that the German has played a significantly improved game since then, gone on to win a title, and in 2016 alone took a mammoth thirteen wins over current and former top-10 players, one might pip Zverev as the favourite here, rather than Nadal. 

In the event Nadal is able to defeat him, he will clash with France’s Gael Monfils in the next round. Monfils, like Nadal, is a clay-court specialist, but lacks the consistency of Nadal’s early career. Like Nadal, Monfils, a former junior Calendar Slam winner, has struggled with injury. 

Nadal’s fourth round opponent would be easier for him to defeat than his third round rival, given the Spaniard has defeated the Frenchman 12 of the 14 times they have played each other. But at their last meeting, the finals of the Monte Carlo Masters last year, Monfils took a clean set off the Spaniard and troubled his game somewhat, so it will not be as smooth sailing for Nadal as he would have liked.

If he does defeat Monfils, Nadal will have to contend with the powerful and in-form Milos Raonic, and that will be an interesting watch. Raonic is in excellent form and seeded third here in Melbourne, ousted Nadal at the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International last week. Raonic is perhaps better suited to the pace of the Australian courts than Nadal, and that win was not a straightforward one, but should this unlikely scenario occur, it could result in a good match. 

The semi-final, if he does progress till there, could be the undoing of Nadal if he has his dream run. The defending champion, and the big gun, Novak Djokovic, will face him there – and in all likelihood, in the best-case scenario should Nadal manage a semi-final finish, he will see an exit to the powerful Serb, who has been down but not out. 

It’s an incredibly tough draw for Rafael Nadal this season, but also one that could bring out his most attacking service. 

A look back at Nadal’s year

Following a break in 2016, the Spanish icon, who has long struggled with a litany of injuries, appears to be significantly rejuvenated, and capped off 2016 with a win at the Mubadala Tennis Championships to commence his new season. He put up an impressive performance there, fighting Belgian ace David Goffin to a robust 6-4, 7-6 finish to lift what was his fourth trophy at the venue. Incidentally, Goffin had ousted World No. 1 Andy Murray from the tournament days earlier. 

Nadal then kicked off 2017 with the Brisbane International, progressing with some strong tennis to defeat an aggressively serving Alexandr Dolgopolov and a resurgent Mischa Zverev, both in straight sets, en route to the quarter-finals, where he went down to defending champion Milos Raonic in a three-set match that saw the Spaniard take early control. 

Luckily for Nadal watchers and fans, the Spaniard seems to be in his usual fighting fit form, and in no pain from his past injuries, with a sustained stamina. The extended break followed by off-season training looks to have done him wonders – but that does not mean his fight is over yet.

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