Nadal chasing history at AO 2021

  • Matt Trollope

Rafael Nadal begins February on the brink of tennis history.

A title at Melbourne Park would earn him a 21st Grand Slam title to leapfrog Roger Federer as the male player with the most men’s major singles trophies ever.

He would then own at least two titles at all four Slams – something no male player has achieved in the Open Era.

Yet he is trying to accomplish all this at the major tournament where he has struggled most.

These plot threads intertwine to make Nadal’s quest one of the most compelling storylines at Australian Open 2021.

Nadal’s 2020: short but sweet

The Spaniard played just seven events last year, opting to skip his US Open title defence and considered vulnerable when he arrived at a rescheduled Roland Garros in September. 

French organisers had introduced a different ball, indoor play was now a factor on Court Philippe Chatrier, the autumnal conditions were cold, heavy and damp, and the 34-year-old lacked matches after losing in the quarterfinals of his only clay-court tune-up event in Rome.

All of Nadal’s perceived advantages had been nullified, yet still he did not drop a set, capping his fortnight with a resounding victory over world No.1 Novak Djokovic in the final.

It earned him a staggering 13th title at Roland Garros, perhaps overshadowing an arguably bigger achievement.

“I was bit surprised, to be honest, that Nadal’s matching Roger in Paris didn’t make more of a stir in the sport’s world. I didn’t sense it got way out of the tennis microcosm,” tennis writer Christopher Clarey said on the Match Point Canada podcast.

“Maybe if he actually gets past Roger it’ll be something that will break out more. It’s a huge achievement.”

Chequered history at Melbourne Park

When he won Australian Open 2009 as the world No.1 and top seed, Nadal was at the peak of his powers, holding three of the sport’s four major trophies.

Yet since that triumph 12 years ago, Nadal has appeared in four AO finals and lost them all – two of them from a break up in the fifth set. 

Injury brought him undone in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2018, and he fell in the first round in 2016. 

It is a curious record for someone clearly proficient on hard courts and who traditionally struggles physically at the end of a season, rather than at the beginning.

“Whether night or day, whether it's 25 degrees or 40 degrees, I would imagine the variability of the conditions make it somewhat difficult,” suggested former world No.4 Todd Martin.

“I was bit surprised that Nadal’s matching Roger in Paris didn’t make more of a stir in the sport’s world. It’s a huge achievement."
New York Times tennis writer Christopher Clarey

“When he's not certain about racquet meeting ball, his ball doesn't do nearly as much. Spinning the dickens out of the ball takes amazing timing, and if the height or the speed of the bounce is different, or the weight of the ball feels different, all of that challenges timing.”

Former Australian pro Wally Masur believes the Australian Open courts are slower, especially at night, than the US Open, where Nadal has won four titles. “You'd think the slowness would play into his hands,” Masur said, “but maybe he doesn't get the same ‘rip-and-grip’ that he gets at the US Open, where his forehand is really hard to deal with.”

Doubles legend and commentator Todd Woodbridge identified a different factor.

“Where Rafa has dominated at Roland Garros, Melbourne Park has been Novak's home. This is just the perfect surface for the way that Novak plays tennis,” Woodbridge said.

“A lot of whether Rafa can win and break the record here is determined by Novak’s form in Melbourne.”

Major title 21 at AO 2021?

All three men believe Nadal nevertheless has a great shot at AO 2021; Woodbridge says the world No.2 enters the event atypically fresh and confident.

“The physical break because of COVID-19 would have actually been a relief for him,” Woodbridge said.

“If his mental game wasn't right, there was every reason for him not to win at Roland Garros. So that for me says his mindset is still exactly where it needs to be. 

“I think this is as good a position as he's been in in many years.”

The pressure of setting records has rarely affected the legendary Spaniard.

He did not wilt in the Wimbledon 2008 final as he became the first player since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to win the “Channel Slam”. Bidding to become the first man ever to win three Slams in a season on different surfaces, he dominated at the 2010 US Open. He did not drop a set at Roland Garros in 2017 during his fabled “La Decima” campaign.

This is a man who knows how to chase, catch, and surpass historical milestones.

"In terms of these records, of course that I care. I am a big fan of the history of sport,” Nadal said after his 2020 Roland Garros victory. 

"I never hide that for me, I always say the same, that I would love to finish my career being the player with more Grand Slams.”