• Australian Open

Comeback king Nadal ready to wreck retirement notion

Mark Hodgkinson
January 16, 2015
There have been alarmist suggestions that Rafael Nadal will never win a grand slam again © Getty Images

What some people seem to forget, as they fret about his future, is that there is no one better at comebacks than Rafa Nadal. He has the mental fortitude for it.

"Ever since Rafa was young, when he was a boy, I have worked his mind, so he can be mentally strong," Nadal's uncle and coach, Toni, said when we once discussed how to approach comebacks from injury. "Always the most important thing is the mind, because when you have a strong mind you will have a strong body and you can play strong shots. When you're coming back from injury, if you don't have a strong mind, you will find it very difficult."

Rafael Nadal underwent surgery on his appendix last November © Getty Images

Like anything in tennis, you improve with practice, and Toni's nephew has a great deal of experience at returning from injury or physical ailment of some sort (way too much experience for the family's liking). The hyperbole that surrounded Nadal's return in 2013 wasn't hyperbole at all; looking back now at his achievements that season - which included winning grand slams at Roland Garros and the US Open, and returning to the world No.1 ranking - that really was the finest comeback in the history of tennis, and arguably of all sports.

All this is worth bearing in mind after the supposed calamity of Nadal's defeat in Qatar to Michael Berrer, a German ranked outside the top 100. That really was a result to keep tennis's chattering classes in conversation until the Australian Open begins on Monday.

The draw for Melbourne was a tough one and, doubtless, you will have heard alarmist suggestions that Nadal - who is making his way back from the wrist and appendix difficulties of last season - will never win another grand slam trophy outside south-west Paris. Or that Nadal, who is tied with Pete Sampras on 14 slams, now stands little chance of eclipsing Federer's 17 majors. The r-word - retirement - has been floated. To which the only retort should be another r-word: ridiculous.

The tennis commentariat debate who is going to last longer in this sport - Nadal, who is 28, or a Swiss rival five years his senior? Federer prepared for the opening grand slam of the year by winning a title in Brisbane, with his victory over Milos Raonic in the final taking him to 1,000 career match wins (and the only other men in four figures are Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl). Though Federer's back can occasionally flare up, as it did at the season-ending tournament in London last November, he hasn't had nearly as many problems with his body as Nadal has.

Naturally, Nadal was a little jittery, and "playing with more nerves than usual", in the Persian Gulf. After all, it was his first competitive tennis since the appendix operation, and only his eighth appearance since last summer's Wimbledon Championships.

Ever since Rafa was young, when he was a boy, I have worked his mind, so he can be mentally strong
Toni Nadal

It's true that Nadal hasn't had the happiest of times since losing to Nick Kyrgios, an Australian teenager, at the All England Club - indeed, Nadal hasn't quite been himself since Kyrgios played 'that' tweener on Centre Court during their fourth-round match.

A wrist injury kept Nadal out of the US Open, and then on his return in the autumn, he was a long way off his best, a result of the appendicitis. Returning to competition in Beijing, he lost to Slovakia's Martin Klizan, an opponent ranked outside the top 50, while in Shanghai he lost to Feliciano Lopez of Spain; in Basel he was beaten by Croatia's Borna Coric, which was the second occasion in 2014 that he was bumped out of a tournament by a teenager with a three-digit ranking.

But what could be more normal than feeling nervous when returning to competition? As Toni Nadal said: "Only people who aren't intelligent don't have doubts". That's not to say that Nadal is fretting about his long-term future (and his time in the Middle East wasn't without success as he won the doubles title with Argentina's Juan Monaco). "These things happen," Nadal said of his defeat to Berrer, "after a long time without being on the road, in rhythm and in competition."

Rafael Nadal has not looked himself since his defeat to Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon © Getty Images

Yes, it would be a surprise if Nadal, a former champion at Melbourne Park, and a runner-up to Stan Wawrinka at last season's tournament, were to win another title by the Yarra River this year. No one is predicting that.

But let's not become too alarmist about Nadal's mishap in the desert, and the list of the opponents he has lost to since Wimbledon. Let's recall the other occasions that his future has been doubted, and how he responded by adding to his collection of titles.

In just five months' time, who would really be that surprised if Nadal were to win the French Open once again, a 10th title on the beaten earth of Roland Garros? And it's hardly beyond the realms of possibility that he could also go through the draw on the grass of Wimbledon, or on the cement of the US Open.

The Nadal clan accept, Toni said, that "in this life, things don't always go as you want, and there are ups and downs". Perhaps others need to see that, too.

Mark Hodgkinson is the author of Game, Set and Match: Secret Weapons of the World's Greatest Tennis Players (Bloomsbury, May).

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