Rafael Nadal will begin his bid for a second Australian Open title next week when he faces home favourite James Duckworth in the first round in Melbourne.
The Spaniard was forced to pull out from the Brisbane International last week before his first round encounter against Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga following a thigh strain.
With no competitive match-play ahead of the first Grand Slam of the year, all eyes will be on Nadal to see whether or not his body can withstand the wear and tear of best out of five sets tennis during the fortnight of action. Remember, Nadal is coming off having only played nine ATP tour tournaments in 2018 – in a year that was dominated by injuries for the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
As ever the optimist, Nadal has been saying all the right things ahead of the championships, which will delight his legion of fans. Should Nadal hit his sparkling best in Melbourne a key factor to his game could be his new abbreviated serve that he debuted in December against Kevin Anderson at the Abu Dhabi exhibition event.
It is said that the new serve will give Nadal more pop, similar perhaps to arguably his best ever serving display at the 2010 US Open, where Nadal was clocking 120mph serves en route to his first of three US Open titles.
Nadal’s first real big test in Melbourne could come in the third round, where he is likely to face rising Australian star Alex de Minaur before a potential fourth round encounter with Britain’s Kyle Edmund.
Kevin Anderson could then be up next for Nadal in the quarters, before a mouth-watering clash with old foe Roger Federer in the semifinals.
A stat that won’t make for good reading for Nadal fans is that in his last 13 hard court events, the Spaniard has withdrawn or retired from 10 of those tournaments. His last title triumph on a hard court came last year at the Rogers Cup.
It seems Nadal’s body and especially his troublesome knees are unable to withstand the demands of a hard court. Having said that, Nadal should fancy his chances of going deep at Melbourne.
In his last five previous showing at the “Happy Slam,” Nadal has only failed to go reach at least the quarterfinals on one occasion. That defeat came three years ago in the first round against compatriot Fernando Verdasco in four sets.
It would take a brave person to write off Nadal imposing himself at the Australian Open this year. A dark horse he may be before a ball is hit in anger, a two-time champion he could possibly be when it’s all said and done.
Main Photo from Getty