But the Spaniard was confronted by more unexpected setbacks and nagging physical woes. His first tournament back was in Beijing, where he reached the quarterfinals but then was upended by fellow left-hander Martin Klizan in three sets. On he went to Shanghai, and there he had a first round bye. He subsequently lost to another left-hander in the second round, bowing for only the third time in twelve career skirmishes against the ever attacking Feliciano Lopez. After that defeat, Nadal had to take more time off. He elected to postpone an appendectomy by receiving a few rounds of antibiotics in an effort to play more matches, a decision he now probably regrets.
The Spaniard appeared in one more tournament last fall, reaching the quarterfinals in Basel but performing with uncharacteristic timidity in a straight sets loss to the immensely promising Borna Coric. After that match, Nadal closed shop for the season and in early November he had the surgery for his appendix. He resumed practicing in December, and tried his best to make up for lost time. Opening up his 2015 campaign with an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi, Nadal was dismissed 6-2, 6-0 by a top of the line Andy Murray before ousting Stan Wawrinka for third place. On he went to Doha, seeking to defend his title there. He played a superb first set against yet another lefty named Michael Berrer, a 34-year-old German journeyman, conceding only one game. But thereafter he could not break Berrer again, and the match slipped from his grasp.
Add it all up, and here are the facts: since Wimbledon last year, Nadal had played eight official tennis matches and some exhibitions as he headed into the Australian Open. He had not been beyond the quarterfinals in four tournament appearances. The problems with his body were playing with his mind. No wonder that Nadal seemed even more apprehensive than usual as he approached the 2015 Australian Open. He clearly did not know what to expect. He could not measure himself by the usual barometers of wins and losses, success or failure. He simply wanted to get his teeth into this tournament, find his way onto the victory board, and rediscover the feeling of what it means to be Rafael Nadal. He has grown weary of not being himself.
That is why Nadal will be at least cautiously optimistic after an auspicious start. In his first round assignment against Mikhail Youzhny, he did indeed look like the Nadal of old. He covered the court with high energy and alacrity. He was remarkably solid off the backhand, driving it crosscourt with unrelenting depth, taking it down the line deceptively, making very few errors off that side. His trademark forehand was first rate; he waited for the right openings to go inside-out off that side, taking control of rallies time and again with aggression, pace, and precision. And, perhaps most importantly, Nadal?s first serve was humming and struck with authority; his second serve had good depth and variation. His return of serve was not only consistent but strikingly aggressive off both flanks. Altogether, he won a remarkable 49 of 57 points on serve and faced only one break point in three sets. He unleashed 37 winners and made only 15 unforced errors. He demolished Youzhny 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal made his first move at 2-2 in the first set. After Youzhny had rallied from 15-40 to reach game point, the 32-year-old double faulted. Nadal garnered a third break point, and this time he exploited the opportunity, sending a forehand passing shot down the line for a dazzling winner, displaying a fist pump as he sealed that break. In the following game, Nadal was down break point, but he met that moment with poise. Nadal came forward and won that point with a solid overhead, and soon held on for 4-2. He would never look back.
After Youzhny held on for 3-4, Nadal pressed his advantage with growing assurance. He held at 15 and then broke Youzhny in the ninth game, getting good depth on his returns. Youzhny unraveled, particularly off his vulnerable forehand wide. The set had gone to Nadal, 6-3. He was off and running.
The essential Nadal is a formidable front runner. It is one of his primary strengths. He builds on his leads, starts going for his shots with more gusto, and controls his destiny with a combination of outstanding ball control, unshakable defense and a wider array of shots. He commenced the second set with supreme concentration and a growing sense that he was simply not going to lose this tennis match, establishing a 3-0 lead without losing a point. By then, including the end of the first set, he had collected no fewer than 16 points consecutively. To be sure, Youzhny was contributing significantly to his own demise. He is a mercurial fellow, prone to enormous mood swings, dangerous and sparkling when he is flowing, inept and discombobulated when things go wrong. He once resided as high as No. 8 in the world seven years ago, but currently stands at No. 49. He is no longer the player he once was.
The fact remains that Nadal was not taking his foot off the accelerator, not for an instant. After Youzhny held on for 1-3, Nadal resumed his mastery, holding at love for 4-1. His placement on the lefty sliced serve down the T in the deuce court and out wide in the ad court was impeccable. He was backing up his delivery with a barrage of devastatingly potent forehands. Youzhny held on for 2-4, but he wore the expression of a man who knew he had no chance to win. Nadal promptly held comfortably for 5-2, and then broke again in a long game to seal the set 6-2. The quality of Nadal?s returns remained extraordinary.
On they went to the third set, with both men fully aware of what the outcome was going to be. Nadal has lost only once in his illustrious career after building a two sets to love lead, and that was way back in the spring of 2004 at Miami against Roger Federer, when the Spaniard was 18. In any event, Nadal was soaring now. In his first three service games of the third set against Youzhny, Nadal swept 12 of 13 points. With Youzhny serving at 2-3, 0-40, a double fault gave Nadal the break he needed. He wrapped it up swiftly from there, winning eight of ten points to complete his 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 triumph.
Despite a desultory performance from Youzhny, Nadal surely got a significant boost from this triumph. He settled into a comfortable rhythm from the outset and maintained a lofty level of play all across the three sets. He was unswerving, purposeful, and sound in every facet of his game. Now Nadal will meet the 27-year-old American Tim Smyczek in the second round. Smyczek stands at 5?9?, weighs 160 pounds, and is ranked No. 112 in the world. He has been stationed as high as No. 73 in the world. He plainly can play the game, and he recorded a good win over the Australian wildcard Luke Saville in the first round. But Nadal should prevail in straight sets against Smyczek.
If all goes according to plan, Nadal might have a third round appointment against No. 28 seed Lukas Rosol, the big hitter who beat him at Wimbledon in 2012. That would be a test, but Nadal surely has the edge in a best of five contest against this adversary, and he would rather play Rosol on hard courts than grass. If Nadal prevails, he could find himself up against either the big serving Kevin Anderson or Richard Gasquet in the round of 16, with Anderson looming as the larger threat. A victory for Nadal would take him into the quarterfinals for a potential duel with Tomas Berdych, who has lost seventeen times in a row against the Spaniard.
Nadal knows full well he can?t get ahead of himself. He is a professional through and through, and he will take this one moment and one match at a time. He still needs to find out how much punishment his body can take after playing so few matches over the last six months. But he has started this tournament in style. His first round performance was encouraging in every way. He has given himself a chance to play another match, hoping it will lead to bigger and better things, knowing that he must take absolutely nothing for granted. Above all else, Nadal is a hard realist who has never had an inflated view of himself; to the contrary, he can be exceedingly humble. Be that as it may, his drive to win major titles is undiminished, and his dreams remain large. If his body holds up in Melbourne, if he tends to his knitting, if he can elevate his game steadily round by round, anything is possible for this unwavering individual.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
<Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve