Can Rafael Nadal win the 2016 Australian Open?
If World No. 5 Rafael Nadal’s performances at each of the four Slams are set side by side, the Australian Open would always remain at the bottom of his list. It is not because that Rafa has utterly failed to rise to the occasion but it is due to how he has been deprived of luck time and again at Melbourne Park.
After his 2009 win, it took the Spaniard three more years before he could reach the summit clash again. In the intervening period, a knee injury cut short his title defense in the 2010 quarter-finals. The very next year, the Spaniard’s bid for a ‘Non-Calendar Year Grand Slam’ was scuppered by a hamstring problem that led to his defeat to compatriot David Ferrer in the same round.
His miseries did not end there as the former World No. 1 had to opt out of the 2013 edition owing to a stomach virus and the following year his back problems robbed him of his vital fighting spirit in the final.
Despite all his troubles at the season’s first Slam, Melbourne Park has also been a witness to one of Rafa Nadal’s unforgettable exhibitions of endurance and tenacity. In 2009, he met his senior countryman, Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals in what became a 5 hours 14 minutes epic display of grinding power and resilience from two warriors at their absolute best.
Seven years later, the two meet again in the first round on Tuesday. Could they reprise their classic from 2009?
Verdasco’s ranking has plummeted to 45th now which doesn’t give any indication that he will be able to make this match as competitive as it was seven years ago. However, the 32-year-old did have a win over the 14-time Slam champion last year. Nadal, in the midst of his crisis, had slumped to a three-set defeat at the Miami Masters which was very distressing to watch for any Rafa fan.
But as the months progressed Rafa showed some steady signs of improvement which gathered momentum towards the end of the season. His two final appearances in the fall season and his three back-to-back top 10 victories at the World Tour Finals thoroughly underlined his resurgence.
Most importantly, Rafa himself announced that he was free from the mental anxieties plaguing him for much of the year. And the results showed immediately! He was aggressive and bubbling with energy and seemed to enjoy his time on the court once again.
The forehands were connecting just like before, wreaking havoc on the likes of Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and David Ferrer at the season-ender. He continued the work in the off-season and opened 2016 by winning the exhibition tournament at Abu Dhabi where he had two solid wins over Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. At the Qatar Open, the 29-year-old made it to the final, succumbing to the imperious Novak Djokovic.
Lately, the diligent Spaniard has shown an effort in taking the ball early as he continues to climb his way back to the top echelons. He has opted for a different racquet for the new season in order to add more topspin to his forehand.
Rafa’s positive approach has also been confirmed by his coach, Toni Nadal, who told the ATP website: “I think Rafael’s level is better than at this point last year. That he’s feeling good physically helped us more ... For a long time we had to be careful with the workouts because there were various problems, but for a while now we have been able to do high intensity training sessions for as long as we want.”
The smile is once again back for the Malloran who has admitted to feeling happy at Melbourne. He has Wawrinka and Murray as his potential quarter-final and semi-final opponents respectively – two players he dispatched with consummate ease just a few weeks back. There’s enough reason to believe that if Rafa plays with conviction, he can very well produce an encore of that performance and secure his place in the final on January 31.
The world is pining to see the Rafa of old. Will he oblige?