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15 facts you may have missed on Rafael Nadal’s best ever start to a year

Rafael Nadal has begun 2022 with 15 wins out of 15, including a record 21st Grand Slam title. Here’s how he did it

Rafael Nadal, Indian Wells 2022 (practice session) Rafael Nadal, Indian Wells © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

At the grand old age of 35, Rafael Nadal has made his best ever start to a season, winning his first 15 matches of the year, including moving clear in the battle for most Grand Slam titles of all time with No 21 at the Australian Open. We take a look at how he’s managed it, including a few facts you may have missed.

ATP Melbourne R2: Beat Ricardas Berankis 6-2, 7-5

In his first match back from a serious foot injury that caused an early end to his 2021 season and his first match since suffering from Covid-19, Nadal beat Berankis with relative ease to open his title bid. In a sign of what was to come at the Australian Open, Nadal won all six of his points at the net. He later pulled out of the doubles event, as a precaution as he continued to build strength after Covid-19.

ATP Melbourne QF: Beat Tallon Griekspoor W/O

If Nadal was looking for a rest, he got it when Dutchman Tallon Griekspoor pulled out with a foot injury. It was only the 11th time in his career that Nadal has enjoyed a walkover, dating back to his first, in 2006. Six of the previous 10 came in Masters 1000 events.

ATP Melbourne SF: Beat Emil Ruusuvuori 6-4, 7-5

Nadal had practised with the young Finn earlier in the week and perhaps Emil Ruusuvuori picked up a few things because it was a tight battle. The win sent Nadal through to his first final since he won Rome last May.

ATP Melbourne Final: Beat Maxime Cressy 7-6 (6), 6-3

In the final, Nadal had his first taste of the serve and volley game of Maxime Cressy, a French-born American making his way up the rankings. But Nadal was too solid and actually out-aced Cressy 9-8 to claim title No 89. “I’m coming back from some challenging moments and injuries, so it means a lot to be here,” Nadal said. It also meant Nadal had won at least one title in each of the past 19 years.

Nadal (right), shares a laugh with Cressy after the Melbourne final © AP Photo/Hamish Blair

Australian Open R1: Beat Marcos Giron 6-1, 6-4, 6-2

Nadal opened his account in Melbourne with a confident straight-sets win over Giron. Thirteen years after his only previous Australian Open win, he needed less than two hours for victory, winning almost half the points on Giron’s first serve, making his life much easier.

Australian Open R2: Beat Yannick Hanfmann 6-2, 6-3, 6-4

The first week cruise continued as Nadal made light work of the German, easing through without dropping serve for the second match in succession. With no Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, some were beginning to tip Nadal but the Spaniard gave an insight into his mindset. “I don’t have big pressure on my shoulders, honestly,” he said. “I don’t feel it. The pressure is only to stay healthy and to enjoy the fact that I am competing again, then give my best as I did during all my tennis career.”

Australian Open R3: Beat Karen Khachanov 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1

Russia’s Khachanov became the first man to break Nadal and to win a set but it wasn’t enough as the Spaniard eased through in four sets. Nadal extended his record against Khachanov to a perfect 8-0 as he booked his place in the fourth round.

Australian Open R4: Beat Adrian Mannarino 7-6 (14), 6-2, 6-2

Mannarino had four set points in the opening set but Nadal showed his resilience as he saved the lot. Once he’d taken the tiebreak 16-14 there was no coming back for the Frenchman, who faded away. The first set alone lasted 81 minutes.

Australian Open QF: Beat Denis Shapovalov 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, 6-3

Here was Nadal’s first real test as Canadian Denis Shapovalov, another left-hander, went for broke in the third and fourth sets to force Nadal to a decider. After a contentious battle in intense heat, during which Shapovalov was vocal in his criticism of the time Nadal was taking between points, the match was effectively decided at the start of the fifth, when four errors handed the Spaniard the crucial break. “I was completely destroyed after that,” Nadal said. “Very tough day, very warm. I was a little lucky at the beginning of the fifth.”

Australian Open SF: Beat Matteo Berrettini 6-3, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3

Just as he did at the US Open in 2019, Nadal came out on top against Italian Matteo Berrettini, winning 56 percent of points on his second serve. Nadal’s win put him into the final for a sixth time, as big a surprise to him as to anyone at Melbourne Park. “I was very lucky to win it once in my career and I never thought about having another chance in 2022,” he said, “so I’ll just try and enjoy the victory today and then just try my best.”

Australian Open Final: Beat Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5

Down two sets to love to the reigning US Open champion Daniil Medvedev, Nadal somehow found his way back into the match in an incredible show of guts and skill. When he failed to serve it out at 5-4 in the fifth, his mind immediately went back to two previous Australian Open final defeats, to Novak Djokovic in 2012 and to Roger Federer in 2017, when he let slip a break of serve lead in the fifth to lose. “After that I said, ‘F***, one more time a break up in the fifth and I’m going to lose again, like in 2012, like in 2017,” he told Eurosport. But he dug deep, broke again immediately and second time round served out to win a remarkable, record 21st Grand Slam title.

ATP Acapulco R1: Beat Denis Kudla 6-3, 6-2

Few had expected Nadal to play again before Indian Wells but he popped up in Acapulco and was immediately in the groove as he beat American Kudla, who had replaced Reilly Opelka in the draw after the American pulled out with fatigue. Nadal didn’t face a break point and won 96 percent of points on first serve.

ATP Acapulco R2: Beat Stefan Kozlov 6-0, 6-3

Kozlov had only just made it to the tournament when, after losing in qualifying, he went to the beach and became stranded at sea, treading water for 20 minutes before being rescued. He survived an epic match to beat Grigor Dimitrov in round one and then had nothing left against Nadal.

ATP Acapulco QF: Beat Tommy Paul 6-0, 7-6 (5)

A third American came and went from the draw as Paul found Nadal too tough. The Spaniard won 72 percent of points on the Paul second serve as he booked another clash with Daniil Medvedev.

ATP Acapulco SF: Beat Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 6-3

The slow hard courts of Acapulco didn’t allow Medvedev the chance to get too many free points and Nadal took full advantage. Nadal saved all 11 of the break points he faced and one game, at 6-3, 3-2 – which lasted 20 minutes with seven break point chances for Medvedev coming and going – proved crucial. Nadal won it and held his advantage to win the match.

ATP Acapulco Final: Beat Cameron Norrie 6-4, 6-4

Briton Cameron Norrie had beaten Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis and pushed Nadal in the past but the Spaniard was in no mood to let slip an opportunity for more silverware and he dominated the match to claim title No 91. It is his best ever start to a year, moved him back up to No 4 in the rankings and puts him well clear at the top of the calendar-year ATP Race, which bodes well for his chances to return to world No 1 again at some stage in 2022.

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