By Richard Martin
(Reuters) – After finally beginning a season with no injury concerns, Rafael Nadal has as clean a shot at the Australian Open as he could hope for as he takes aim at equaling Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles.
Melbourne is the Slam that the 19-times champion has found the hardest to win, with his only triumph coming in 2009 when he overcame Federer in a five-set epic that left his Swiss rival in floods of tears.
He has reached the final four times in the last decade and lost on each occasion, twice to Novak Djokovic, including a trouncing last year, once to Federer and one shock reverse at the hands of Stan Wawrinka in 2014.
Nadal has previously spoken out against the timing of the Australian Open so soon after the Christmas break and has often found himself battling fitness problems as the tournament approaches.
Familiar knee problems stunted his preparation in 2018 and led to him withdrawing in agony in the fifth set of a quarter-final with Marin Cilic.
Last year, he underwent ankle surgery before the tournament, which made his run to the final without dropping a set all the more impressive.
This year, though, the world number one appears to be in fine shape, having spearheaded Spain’s victory at the Davis Cup in November and helped his country into the recent inaugural final of the ATP Cup where he lost a classic to Djokovic.
Nadal has remained relatively injury-free since recapturing last year’s U.S. Open title, with the only recent setback an abdominal injury that forced him to withdraw during the Paris Masters.
“Rafa is in spectacular form and now it’s just a question of maintaining his level,” said coach Francis Roig after arriving in Australia with Nadal ahead of the ATP Cup.
“He is feeling very confident because of how he has been playing and because his serve is helping him a lot.”
Staying in prime shape is crucial to Nadal’s chances in Melbourne where he suffered his heaviest Grand Slam final loss last year and was left admitting that his defensive game was unable to counter Djokovic’s precision attacks.
He will be emboldened, then, by the ruthless physical shape he found himself in at the end of the season, which saw him win eight matches in six days at the Davis Cup as he led Spain to victory.
Talk of chasing down Federer’s 20 Slams will gather pace as each day passes in Melbourne, although Nadal maintains that drawing level with the Swiss is not something he obsesses over.
“I make my own path because you can’t always be frustrated or over-ambitious,” he told Spanish newspaper AS in December.
“When you do everything you can, you’re aren’t obliged to do anything else. At the end of the year I want to be able to say I’ve done enough to make things go as well as possible.”
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Ian Chadband)