Nadal starts at the summit, but contenders circle

  • Dan Imhoff

In a 19-second video of Rafael Nadal under an enclosed Melbourne Arena this week, the Spaniard is captured gliding just beyond the baseline, crunching forehands in a training drill.

It is a Twitter post from the Rafa Nadal Academy, and comes with a quote from Brazilian football legend, Pele.

“Success is no accident,” it reads. “It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”

It perhaps best encapsulates the key to the 33-year-old becoming the first player to hold the No.1 ranking in three different decades.

After finishing 2019 with two more Grand Slam trophies – a 12th at Roland Garros and fourth at Flushing Meadows – Nadal capped another stellar season with a Davis Cup triumph on home soil.

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The year-end No.1 was the icing on the cake, given Novak Djokovic had collected the other two majors up for grabs.

The Spaniard is taking aim at a sixth Melbourne Park final

“No secret at all,” Nadal grinned, when pressed on his sustained ability to return to the top spot.

“I can't say I have been lucky with injuries, because I have not. But, well, there is no secret, no? There is only about passion, about love for the game, and about being able to stay positive in the tough moments.

“It is true that I went through some tough situations during all my career. But I was able to always, with probably the positive attitude and with the right people around …  I was able to find a way to keep going.

“Something that’s difficult to imagine for me because [of] my style of game, as a lot of people said, my career should be little bit shorter. But here we are.”

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Nadal opens his 15th Australian Open campaign against 26-year-old Bolivian Hugo Dellien on Tuesday.

Five times he has featured in the men’s final at Melbourne Park, a champion on one of those occasions 11 years ago.

A potential fourth-round blockbuster against Australian Nick Kyrgios could eventuate, should Kyrgios win through 16th seed Karen Khachanov’s section of the draw.

‘I went through some tough situations during all my career. But … I was able to find a way to keep going’
Rafael Nadal

Fifth seed Dominic Thiem, who lost to Nadal in the 2019 Roland Garros final, is on a quarterfinal collision course with rising No.4 seed Daniil Medvedev – the man Nadal denied in five sets at Flushing Meadows last year – as a projected semi-final opponent.

John McEnroe this week tipped feisty Russian Medvedev as the player most likely to break the Big Three’s stranglehold on the majors in 2020.

“Every time somebody says something like this, especially John, who was an amazing tennis player, a legend, it makes you kind of happy,” Medvedev said.

“It means that what you've achieved last year got noticed.”

Medvedev has every reason to be confident coming into AO2020

The 23-year-old Muscovite beat three top-20 opponents to start his season at the ATP Cup, and offered a wry grin when asked what would make a successful Australian Open campaign in his eyes.

“A good Australian Open is to win it,” said Medvedev, the third favourite for the title behind Djokovic and Nadal. “But I would say I will be happy with quarters … If I'm in quarters, I'm not going to be there and say, ‘OK, I've done my goal, it's enough for this tournament’.”

Yet to pass the fourth round in Melbourne, Thiem’s march to the title match of the ATP Finals in November gave cause for optimism of a deep run heading into the first major of the season, following victories over the likes of Roger Federer and Djokovic.

And while he only claimed one of his three matches at the ATP Cup in Sydney, the 25-year-old was pleased with his lead-up.

The Austrian has progressed twice to the fourth round in Australia

“I think maybe first match ATP Cup was not as great, but was still the first match of the year where I always have some troubles,” Thiem said. “But second and third match was really decent. I played some good tennis.

“After we finished the match against Poland, I think it's almost two weeks until today, until the tournament starts on Tuesday. I got in some really good practices with the best players in the world, so preparation is going well. Feeling good about the start.”