Recent form suggests Nadal is vulnerable in Melbourne; history says otherwise

The Spaniard admits his results of late have not been good, but expect him to be vastly improved when he plays Jack Draper in round one at the Australian Open on Monday

Rafael Nadal, Melbourne 2023 Rafael Nadal, Melbourne 2023 | © Zuma / Panoramic
Australian Open •First round • completed
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Throughout his long and storied career, Rafael Nadal has always been honest when discussing the state of his game with the media.

So when he says he is “vulnerable” to an early exit from this year’s Australian Open, we should take him at his word, right?

Certainly, his first-round match-up with Britain’s Jack Draper, the world No 40, is about as tough a contest as a seeded player could have. The left-hander has power, youth, exuberance and belief while Nadal is 36 and has lost six of his seven matches since last year’s US Open.

Defending champion, top seed, record Grand Slam winner

But this is Nadal we are talking about. Let’s think about this for a moment.

The Spaniard is the defending champion in Melbourne, having come from two sets and a break down to beat Daniil Medvedev in the final last year, one of the most remarkable wins in Australian Open history.

With Carlos Alcaraz out through injury, Nadal is also the No 1 seed after another incredible year, despite an injury-hit second half of the season.

What’s more, Nadal’s record at the Australian Open is little short of sensational. With the exception of 2016, when he lost in the first round to Fernando Verdasco, he has reached the quarter-finals or better every year he has played the event since 2007.

In addition to his two wins, in 2009 and last year, Nadal has reached the final four times, finishing runner-up in 2012, 2014, 2017 and 2019, losing to Djokovic three times and Roger Federer once (2017).

He’s also 124-18 in matches with left-handers, although Draper may take some solace in the fact that the Spaniard lost two of the past three, with Cam Norrie and Denis Shapovalov getting the better of him.

Rafael Nadal return practice AO 2023
Rafael Nadal, Melbourne 2023 | © AI / Reuters / Panoramic

Nadal not afraid to be honest

Most players are wary of talking about anything to do with their game that’s not going well. Few would suggest they were vulnerable to an early exit for fear of offering their opponent a psychological boost.

But Nadal is not worried about that. Instead, he may just be doing the opposite, piling the pressure on Draper. The Briton is a good player who has a chance to win but the pressure, strangely, seems to be on him to deliver, with Nadal having created a situation in which he is almost considered to be the underdog.

He’s not, of course, and he expects himself to play well.

My personal feeling, without a doubt, is better now than three weeks ago, in general terms.

Rafael Nadal

“I didn’t play that bad the first two matches the year,” he said. “I lost against two great opponents (Cam Norrie and Alex de Minaur), but having very positive chances to win both matches. I already have been here for three weeks, practising every day with that conditions, with the best players. That helps a lot in general terms.

“My situation, I don’t know what can happen on Monday, but my personal feeling, without a doubt, is better now than three weeks ago, in general terms.”

Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2023
Rafael Nadal, Australian Open 2023 – © Zuma / Panoramic

Balls a legitimate concern : “worse quality without a doubt”

But, if there is one area where he might be concerned, then that’s the state of the balls.

A number of players have highlighted how quickly the balls being used for this year’s event are losing their fluff after just one or two games, making them faster. Organisers say the balls are the same as last year, but Nadal disagrees, pointing out that they will favour those who hit with less spin.

“They say (they are) the same, but the ball is worse quality, without a doubt,” he said. “We can’t talk about that any more. It’s what we have. We need to play with it.

“I think it’s a ball that doesn’t get the same spin as usual. After a couple of hits, the ball loses the pressure. It’s more difficult to hit with the right spin. I think it’s easier to play when you play flatter on the shots. But I need to live with it. I think I practised enough with the ball to be ready for it.”

Nadal: “I feel ready, honestly”

Nadal produced heroics here 12 months ago when he came from two sets and a break down to beat Daniil Medvedev and claim a second Australian Open title. There’s no reason not to expect him to come out firing against Draper.

The fact that Nadal arrived here early tells you everything you need to know about his motivation. His family – including his new-born son – is with him and he seems happy with life, ready to go.

“I feel ready, honestly,” he said. “The only thing that didn’t happen in my side is victories. That’s the real thing. But for the rest of the things that I am building to be ready for a tournament like this one, I feel quite ready.

“I would love to arrive here with a couple of victories, yes. That didn’t happen, so need to accept that, need to live with it. The rest of the parts of my game that I have been working with, I am quite happy and I feel ready in terms of try to play a very good tennis on Monday. Then I need to make that happen and I going to fight for it.”

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