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Nadal’s familiar sinking feeling

  • Matthew Trollope

Rafael Nadal has won everything there is to win in tennis. Including all four Grand Slam titles.
Yet of the four major tournaments, mastering Melbourne has always proved the hardest.
It is a decade since the Spaniard triumphed at the Australian Open. One would have imagined he would win at least another trophy – if not several more – in the ensuing years at a tournament he loves and at which the conditions suit his game.
Yet he remains with a solitary Norman Brookes Challenge Cup.

The Australian Open is widely, and rightly, known as the Happy Slam. However, it hasn’t been a particularly happy place in the later rounds for Nadal.
On Sunday night, he suffered the heaviest Grand Slam final loss of his career to Novak Djokovic. The 6-3 6-2 6-3 defeat marks the first time in his career he has lost a major final in straight sets. It also means he has lost his last four finals at Melbourne Park.

MORE: Class of one: Djokovic wins record seventh AO crown

In the 2012 and 2017 finals, Nadal led by a break in the fifth set against Djokovic and Roger Federer respectively, but couldn’t maintain his momentum. And in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2018, his body betrayed him, nowhere more cruelly than during the 2014 final against Stan Wawrinka.
Thankfully, injury wasn’t a factor in Sunday night’s loss to Djokovic.

“The real thing is he played so well,” Nadal said. “He did a lot of things, very difficult, unbelievably well. He hit so long. His return was fantastic. He was super quick.
“I really believe that he was able to work very hard on the off-season on his movement. He was moving unbelievable well. I felt that good shots came back with offensive position for me, after not a bad shot from me, I have been in the defensive position.
“He was better than me tonight. That's the sport. We can talk a lot, but when the player did almost everything better than you, you can't complain much. The only thing that you can say is congrats to the opponent, well done."

However, injury had played a part in preventing Nadal being best prepared entering this year's event.
The Spaniard did not play a competitive match between the US Open in September – where he withdrew in the middle of his semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro with a knee injury – and Australian Open 2019.
In that intervening period, the knee injury – which wiped out his Asian swing – was followed by an abdominal strain that prevented him from playing the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals in London. Shortly after that he required ankle surgery.

Djokovic was dominant from the get-go

Then, he pulled out of an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi as well as the Brisbane International, more a precautionary move to be 100 per cent healthy for the Australian Open.
He looked imperious in his six matches leading into the final, but in hindsight, his path was somewhat devoid of landmines given he did not face a top-10 player all fortnight. The highest-ranked opponent he played was an overmatched world No.15 Stefanos Tsitsipas, a 20-year-old featuring in his first major semifinal.
“I think I was playing great during the both weeks in offensive positions. But because of the things that happened to me in terms of surgery, then what happened in Abu Dhabi, I was not able to work that much the defensive game,” Nadal explained. “If I am able to run 100 per cent and to resist every ball (against Djokovic), then you find ways. The things that looks easy for him become little bit more difficult when you have to do it one more time, one more time and one more time.

“I was not able to push him to do it one more, one more, one more every time.”
Nadal conceded that, with the level Djokovic attained in Sunday night’s final, it may have been difficult to contend with him even if he had enjoyed uninterrupted preparation for the 2019 season.
Yet he believed he would have put up more of a fight.
And with more matches, more practice and more conditioning, Nadal said he was confident he could get back to the level that has seen him claim 17 major titles and hold the No.1 ranking for 196 weeks.

A second AO title was just a bridge too far for Nadal

“I need more weeks like this one. Like this, I believe the level of tennis have been great. Is something that I am not worried much. Only thing is about time,” he said. “I know that the season is long. My first priority at all, more than winning titles or not, is be happy.

“To be happy, I need to be healthy. I going to do the things that give me better chance to be healthy more than anything. If I am healthy, I am competitive, I am happy, I have the chance to win tournaments.”
He’ll be hoping one of those will be Australian Open 2020.