After the tumultuous events of the last weeks surrounding Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal has presented a strong case that he has a very real opportunity to win the 2022 Australian Open. Two months ago, that seemed preposterous. He was hobbling with severe foot pain. Then just before leaving for Australia, he came down with Covid.
Whiplash forward to now. Suddenly the Spaniard is looking alive, winning the AO warmup Melbourne Summer Set Title right in Rod Laver Arena, the same spot where he’ll vie for the Grand Slam next week. Nadal is currently tied with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for 20 Grand Slam titles apiece.
Is this an opportunity? Djokovic, who as of this writing is slated to play, has endured an unbelievably strife-filled offseason. The world number one has been in the vortex of a media and personal blizzard, has come back from a second bout with Covid, and has lived in detention fighting for his visa with the Australian government. One would think Djokovic would be affected by this and that, in turn, would hurt his play on the tennis court. Will Nadal seize on this?
Here’s a look at a few factors facing Nadal as he prepares to take on the Australian Open.
Working in Nadal’s Favor
Rafa’s “mildly annoyed face” quickly became an internet meme this past week when he was mistakenly asked in a press conference about not having reached the Australian Open semifinals since he won the title in 2009. Oops! Nadal gently corrected the journalist with “I am very sorry to tell you, I don’t want to, but I have been in the final of 2012, ‘14, ‘17, ‘18.”
Two points on this incident. Number one– despite perception, Nadal actually has an outstanding record Down Under. For his career, he’s won 69 singles matches and lost only 15. That’s an 82% winning percentage. Much like golfing great Jack Nicklaus, who holds the record for most majors won, the greatest champions also finish second a lot.
Besides that, Nadal’s total, immediate and bot-like recall of how he’s performed at the Australian Open reveals a player with quick mental reflexes and the confidence of a champion with over two decades of experience Down Under.
And what about that Aussie crowd? In stark contrast to Djokovic, Nadal has been pro-vaccine from the outset of the pandemic. His positions are popular. He’s a much-loved and humble darling of the Australian crowds, despite having won the Australian Open only once. He’ll have a warm and raucous crowd on his side.
In his 3 matches so far, Rafa is handling the faster hard court of Rod Laver Arena well, serving solidly, hitting aces and experimenting with his return position.
Finally, Covid is behind Nadal. It’s one less thing to worry about– that he’d have to withdraw mid-tournament. He can now play freely.
What’s Working Against Nadal
The biggest factors working against Nadal winning the Australian Open and claiming his 21st Grand Slam Title are his opponents. Djokovic is always a favorite as the 9-time Australian Open Champion, the events of the past several weeks notwithstanding.
But what about the in-form, controversy-free 2021 runner-up Daniil Medvedev, who feels right at home on hard courts? Interestingly, Nadal’s head-to-head record against Medvedev is 3-1– all contests coming on hard court.
Who can forget the iconic 2019 US Open Final that went 5 sets and ended with Nadal crying tears of joy? Still, that was awhile ago. Medvedev is now US Open Champion. At their most recent meeting, it was the younger Medvedev who beat Rafa in three sets at the ATP Tour Finals in 2020.
Add Alexander Zverev and a number of young players with fresh legs who have honed their hardcourt skills during the pandemic, and this is still a tough ask for Nadal. As of this writing, the betting odds have Nadal’s chances behind Djokovic, Medvedev and Zverev.
Other factors going against Nadal are: faster courts, pressure to win each Grand Slam twice like Djokovic, and an uncertainty about the depth of his return position.
Finally, the Djokovic controversy has had a halo effect on the entire sport. Nadal has had to respond multiple times to his feelings about his rival’s predicament. He’s managed to walk the line between disagreeing with Djokovic while still offering some sympathy.
But let’s be real. In the end, the biggest challenge Nadal faces is the number 35, which is his age. If any player can withstand all pandemonium and charge forward like a bull, it’s Nadal.