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Rafael Nadal and the Australian Open - A chequered tale of triumph and trauma

Utter the words – “Australian Open”, and many a Nadal fan would probably grimace, or at best, give a shrug of doubt, just like Nadal would. The “Happy Slam” has, of late, been one of hope, belief and inspiration followed by anxiousness, pain, heartbreaks and agony, for Nadal and his legions of fans across the world.

Editor's Pick 27 Jan 2015, 20:21 IST
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Rafael Nadal hasn’t won a title at Melbourne Park since his first title in 2009

Not a “Happy Slam” for Nadal

Utter the words – “Australian Open”, and many a Nadal fan would probably grimace, or at best, give a shrug of doubt, just like Nadal would. The “Happy Slam” has, of late, been one of hope, belief and inspiration followed by anxiousness, pain, heartbreaks and agony, for Nadal and his legions of fans across the world. His latest exit, at the hands of Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals, is yet another chapter in what is turning out to be a tale of tragedy, down under.

Nadal’s solitary triumph at Melbourne park, came 6 years ago, against Roger Federer in a 5 set battle, where he later consoled a distraught Federer on stage. While the memories of that tournament are difficult to erase, the memories since then are difficult to digest.

After retiring with a knee injury in the quarterfinals in 2010, against Murray, and hobbling to a straight sets defeat against countryman David Ferrer at the same stage in 2011, Nadal failed to overturn a 0-6 finals run against Djokovic, in spite of a valiant effort, in 2012. He skipped the tournament with knee injury in 2013 and suffered another heartbreak in the finals last year, as his back failed him, against Stan Wawrinka. 

And now, in his second tournament after a layoff due to wrist injury and appendicitis, he’s ousted by the Czech player, who last defeated him in 2006, when Nadal’s attire involved sleeveless tops, pirate pants, and his hair wasn’t rapidly balding.

“Just was not my day. I didn't play with the right intensity, with the right rhythm, and the opponent played better than me. In sport, when you are going to play against an opponent, was a day that the opponent played better than me”, said Nadal in his interview. While it was an honest assessment of what transpired during the course of the match, the disappointment of falling short yet again, was clearly etched on the Spaniard’s face.

He chose to look at the positive aspects though. “I have to take the positive things. Without being at my top level of tennis, I was able to be here in quarterfinals. Is not a bad result at all for me arriving here the way I arrived: only with one match, only with five matches in seven months. So taking the positive part, that's the thing that I have to take”, he mused.

Double Career Grand Slam still eludes him

Perhaps the impressive way in which he reached the quarterfinals, after struggling in the second round, increased the expectations of fans and oddsmakers. But it is still a fact, that this is only the second tournament of his latest comeback, and he came into the tournament with an 8-4 record, since Wimbledon 2014.

Lack of match practice and match fitness caught up with the Spaniard, and though it was a good tournament from that perspective, the importance of this defeat might be realized in years to come, as one more opportunity where he failed to grab a shot at creating history.

The surface at the Australian Open makes it most suited for Nadal’s game after his preferred clay. His consistent performances at the tournament, since he last won, have made him a tournament favorite, regardless of the form he enters it in. And since his mammoth 2013 season, when he won the US open for the second time, the cries for him to complete a double career Grand Slam – the only man in the Open Era to win each Grand Slam at least twice, have gained momentum. 

Will Nadal ever be able to create history by winning the Australian Open again?

Nadal is now 28-and-a-half years old. While the current era of tennis players, seem to have more longevity than the previous generations, that number is still a factor when it comes to winning Grand Slam tournaments. Federer was 28 years and a few months old when he won his 16th Grand Slam and his fourth Australian Open title. Since then, he has managed to win just one more major in the past six years.

Pete Sampras was 28 years and a few months old when he won his 13th Slam at Wimbledon. He too, finished with just one more Slam before his retirement. John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and a few others won their last major much before 28. Andre Agassi, was an exception, winning three Slams after age 29, with his last Slam coming at the ripe age of 32. 

Even with the assumption that Nadal would maintain his form and fitness till that age, it still shows that winning more than a Slam is an uphill battle, from this point onwards. Considering Nadal’s iron hold at the French Open, it is not unreal to expect a couple more Grand Slams from him there, but the chances of him winning at the other majors are fast slipping by.

Can Nadal bounce back again?

Nadal is no stranger to comebacks or beating the odds. He has made many a comeback in a career plagued with injuries and has proved that writing him off too early is an exercise in futility. But how much more has he got left in the tank? His mental grit and will power is unparalleled, but how many more bullets can his emotional wall handle?

Nadal believes it is part of the comeback process. “Is not the first time in my career I have been injury. Is not the first time that I have bad feelings when I am coming back. Is normal and is part of the process. Is part of the process that when I am playing bad, I cannot play that bad. When I am playing well, I have to be able to maintain that level of tennis.

“When you are coming back from an injury, you lose more easier the feeling than what you do when you are on rhythm, when you are with no injuries, when you are confident in yourself that you played a lot of matches. And that's the thing that happened, no?”

Sure, it would have been crazy to expect Nadal to win the Australian Open outright, so early in his comeback, but the defeat at the hands of someone he hasn’t lost to since “pre-iPhone days”, as Jim Courier put it, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, and makes one ponder with melancholy, as to how different things could have been, had he won.  

Nadal refuses to think about it though. ““If" doesn't exist in sport”, he said. “That's the real thing. If, if, if - never comes. The thing is, you have to do it.”

Maybe, Nadal is just unlucky at the Australian Open. Out of his five quarter-final exits at the Grand Slam stage, four have come here. A combination of inspired opponents and injuries have kept him from crossing the final hurdle. If Wimbledon has become his Achilles heel of late, the Australian Open has become his Tartarus, with Hades reluctant to let him go. 

There is no question that he will put all this behind and come out firing on all cylinders in the coming months. It is also guaranteed that he will try his best as long as he continues to play, at the Australian Open and elsewhere.

What remains to be seen, is if he will be able to steer through his obstacles, and if lady luck shines on him once again.

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