Dark horse? Nope, Rafa Nadal is a leading contender again
Rafa Nadal’s secret has been exposed: he’s back and is a real contender for the Australian Open.
The most iconic grunt in men’s tennis is back on-song.
As he howled on the baseline, manoeuvring Marcos Baghdatis towards submission in each gruelling rally, one thing was noticeable: this wasn’t the Rafa Nadal of the past two seasons.
Wrist issues, knee complaint and a torrent of self-doubt were forgotten as the 30-year-old bulldozed his way into the Australian Open third round with a clinical 6-3 6-1 6-3 win over the Cypriot. It’s a mean feat to have your opponent hunched on their knees, praying to the oxygen gods, during a three-set encounter, but it was a familiar posture for Baghdatias as the contest wore on.
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As the embers flickered in the first set, with Nadal practically home and hosed, Baghdatis threw in an unexpected drop shot. Nadal immediately charged after it, sliding to flick it over the net, before swivelling to race after the return. He was never going to reach it, but sprint he did anyway. He lost the point; he didn’t grimace. This normally innocuous moment provided a telling insight: the mind and body are back in tandem – he is not nursing his frame through matches.
"It’s the old Nadal", muttered Mats Wilander in our commentary box.
Nadal, without a Grand Slam semi-final appearance since the 2014 French Open, looked every bit a champion. He had time on the ball again – his inside-out passing forehand making a triumphant return, with the Spaniard galloping around the ball with a glint. Even twisting to balls played behind him, a sure-fire tactic to stop him in recent years, caused him little concern.
Previous Grand Slams have seen Nadal impress in the early rounds before faltering. He reached the quarter-finals in both Melbourne and Paris in 2015 before bowing out in straight sets to his first serious challenger. We didn’t even see him in the second week last year until the final Slam at Flushing Meadows. But where there was fragility in 2015 and 2016, there is now renewed confidence – even if he is only two matches into a fortnight already producing upsets by the hour.
Nadal’s half of the draw was cranked open with Novak Djokovic’s sudden demise, leaving the third seed Milos Raonic, sixth seed Gael Monfils and eighth seed Dominic Thiem as his most likely competitors for a place in the final next Sunday. If he can pass his next examination, a round three clash with much-hyped kid Alexander Zverev – a future world number one, according to Rafa – then his belief will only increase.
Rafael Nadal embraces Cyprus' Marcos Baghdatis after winning his Men's singles second round matchReuters
His early performances match uncle and coach Toni Nadal’s predictions from November. "We will see the best of Rafael Nadal next year, it will be a great season," he foretold. So far, so good.
Alongside new coaching recruit Carlos Moya, who has been credited for Nadal’s ultra-aggressive tactics in Melbourne, coach Toni has overseen a hugely positive start to the new year. Not that Nadal’s getting carried away.
"I am very happy to be here," Nadal dodged, when pressed on how close he was to 100 per cent fitness.
" I feel my body has no injuries now, I suffered injuries in my career, I've had lots of success and lots of memories from where I have played. I can't complain. I am trying to enjoy every moment I am on court."
He may be talking down his fitness, but if he stays healthy and confident in Melbourne then he simply can’t continue to sneak under the radar. This was a comeback-signalling display. Don’t rule out a 15th Grand Slam just yet.