MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: With a heart-breaking injury record at the Australian Open, few would blame Rafa Nadal for a feeling of trepidation every time he enters Melbourne Park but the fit and healthy Spaniard will begin this year’s campaign full of ‘happy feelings’.
After winning his sole Australian Open title in 2009, Nadal was forced out of its defence with knee trouble against Andy Murray, knocked out of a semi-final against countryman David Ferrer by a hamstring problem the following year and hobbled by a back injury during his losing final to Stan Wawrinka in 2014.
Nadal was forced to miss 2013 due to a stomach virus and when on the comeback trail from a wrist problem and appendicitis last year, he crashed out of the tournament with a straight sets quarter-final loss to Tomas Berdych, one of his worst grand slam defeats.
Whether battling injury or illness, Nadal has rarely arrived at Melbourne Park without something nagging at his confidence so his early season fitness has come as a breath of fresh air.
“I have had good practices here,” he told reporters breezily at Melbourne Park on Saturday. “Very happy to be here again. Good feelings. Just trying to be ready.”
By most other players’ standards, Nadal’s three titles in 2015 would have been considered a success, but his failure to surpass the quarter-finals at any of the grand slams was seen as evidence of decline in the 14-times major champion.
The 29-year-old was nonetheless able to avoid serious injury in the latter part of the season, allowing him to put in his most solid pre-season training in years.
“I think Rafael’s level is better than at this point last year,” his coach and uncle Toni Nadal told the ATP Tour’s website this week.
“That he’s feeling good physically helped us more, for a long time we had to be careful with the workouts because there were various problems, but for a while now we have been able to do high intensity training sessions for as long as we want.
“I also think we have managed to get him back to playing aggressively, and that’s what he needs to do to play well.”
A straight sets thrashing by world number one Novak Djokovic in the final of the Qatar Open underscored the work Nadal still has ahead of him to capture his 15th major title.
“The good thing (about) Novak, the better thing, is he’s an amazing player,” said fifth seed Nadal, who will play fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in the first round.
“The second good thing is he never has injuries, so that helps a lot to have full confidence in yourself and to not lose the rhythm.”