What’s next for Nadal?
Of all the possible narratives heading into the 2017 Australian Open, a final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal might have been the least likely and the most desired result.
For the best part of three years, struggling to rediscover the form which had taken him to those 14 Grand Slam titles, the Spaniard swatted aside countless questions of shaking up his coaching arrangement.
Suggestions came from the likes of John McEnroe and Pat Cash telling him he must look beyond the confines of family for fresh input – or perish.
Opponents were now taking a bigger cut at any ball Nadal dropped short. The game plan to “” only grew in popularity with each unexpected defeat and each early exit that Nadal suffered at the hands of lesser foes.
Rafael Nadal spent much of the 2016 season battling injury. The 30-year-old was sidelined during last year’s French Open and Wimbledon with a left wrist injury.
Former world No.1 Carlos Moya, a man who has known Nadal since he was 15, was added to the coaching ranks late last year, owing to mounting pressure for a coaching change.
And it was a bad time to be showing frailty. The top of men’s tennis is in a transitional state, a group of young talents are pushing at the door, knocking Nadal down the rankings to World No.9 at the start of the Aussie Open.
John McEnroe said in January that Nadal had lost his edge and was going to struggle to win seven potentially grueling matches at his age and with his fragile physical condition.
Most encouraging for Nadal, therefore, is the fact that he’s been outlasting his younger opponents at the AO.
Even though Nadal fell to his great rival Roger Federer in a nostalgic Slam final rematch, his performance this AO has gone a considerable way to muting critics calling time prematurely on the 30-year-old. The quality of his victims at Melbourne Park, though, has bolstered optimism for what lies ahead.
Nadal’s match against Alexander Zverev took five sets over four hours, and it was the German teenager who ended it with cramp. Florian Mayer, Marcos Baghdatis, Gael Monfils were handled with relative ease.
The Spaniard had an even more difficult route to the final than Federer, with a quarterfinal against world number three Milos Raonic, which he won convincingly in straight sets, followed by a 5 set blockbuster semi-final against a resurgent and determined Grigor Dimitrov.
Speaking of Nadal, “I just think he’s an incredible tennis player. He’s got shots that no other one has,” Federer said. “When you have that, you are unique and special. Plus, he’s got the grit. He’s got the mental and physical ability to sustain a super high level of play for years and for hours and for weeks. He’s proven that time and time again. He’s come back from many injuries, you know, time and time again. He made it seem easy, and it’s not. I think he’s been tremendous for the game. I have a lot of respect for him on many levels.”
Nadal is always one to dwell on the positive and he said he’ll walk away from Melbourne in good spirits, despite the crushing loss.
“I believe that if I have my body in the right conditions, I can have a great year because I feel I am playing well. I am with big personal satisfaction. I cannot say I am sad.” said a visibly melancholy Nadal.
However, Nadal will remain mindful of exploiting his impressive form and fitness in the months to come, especially on clay.
“I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. Can happen here in this surface, but especially can happen on clay. The real thing is what makes me happy, more than the titles, is go on the court and feel that I can enjoy the sport. Today I am enjoying the sport.” he said after the final on Sunday.
The comforts of clay and French Open will resonate strongly with Nadal if things remain in his control. But when can one ever be sure of that with him? Fitness problems will always lurk in the corner but that is a pain with which Nadal has learned to live.
‘Form is temporary; Class is permanent’ goes the age-old adage. It may very well be temporary, but at the start of 2017, the old guard is eclipsing the young pretenders.
For now, La Decima seems realistic at Roland Garros. Vamos Rafa!