The Spaniard is coming off a 2011 that saw him served as a whipping boy for Serbian sensation Novak Djokovic in a series of tournament finals. He insists that his game -- and his will -- are back in full stride.
MELBOURNE - It is the curse of illustrious champions: any failure is seen as catastrophic, any weakness as fatal, and it all stubbornly sticks to their reputation. Rafael Nadal should know. His doubts, setbacks and injuries in recent months have been debated and ultimately forced him to remind us of his physical and mental integrity as the 2012 Australian Open begins.
"Yes, I'm fine. Yes, I'm motivated," he said just before the tournament began. "It is true there were a few matches at the end of the 2011 season that I played with a bit less enthusiasm than usual. Things happen when you're tired, but I'm here, in 2012, full of passion. I'm happy, the training is going well and I'm ready."
One year ago, as the first round of the Grand Slam approached, all eyes were turned toward the Spaniard, then No. 1 in the world, with this recurring question: would the Majorcan, winner of Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, realize the Rafa Slam by winning the Australian Open? The verdict was already in by the quarter finals. The small slam was not be this time. With an injured hamstring, he lost to his compatriot David Ferrer. What happened next is well-known: Novak Djokovic marked the beginning of a dizzying series of victories over a year with 10 tournament wins, including Grand Slam titles.
The main victim of the Serbian hurricane is Rafael Nadal, who fell six times to Djokovic during the 2011 season. The campaign of destruction unfolded gradually with an initial raid in Indian Wells, a second in Madrid – particularly painful because it took place on a clay court, the Spaniard's turf – and a stunning coup at Wimbledon. Dethroned of the top world ranking, he left London shaken. His final act of bravado in the final of the US Open was when he went all out, disputing each point he was not awarded.
As for his 2011 results, the No. 2 seed, constantly reminded of his inability to dethrone Djokovic, goes into defense mode. "For me, it was a positive year. In my opinion, a season with a Roland-Garros title, a Davis Cup title and 10 finals can be considered good. Yes, I lost many finals, but it would be too arrogant – and I am not arrogant on this point – to think that it was a bad year. I do not consider myself good enough to claim it."
It is the paradox of champions. By dint of elevating people to the exceptional, they deprive them of the right to make mistakes.
If Nadal, humility personified, counts himself happy enough with 10 Grand Slam wins, his Olympic title and his five victories in the Davis Cup, he is already a man not content to rest on his laurels. This is a fighter in search of perpetual improvement, with the goal of being a better player today than yesterday having been his credo since childhood. "If you can get there, the rest will follow. I set goals for myself day to day. The important thing is to continually progress. It is daily work. This year, there are small things I want to improve upon." To reverse the gains of Djokovic, for starters, and to achieve his dream for 2012: a double Wimbledon/Olympic Games on English turf.
Weight of the racquet
Among the notorious measures taken by the Spaniard include three extra grams of weight added to the head of the racket for a batter match against the Serbian offensive. "Three grams along the sides will probably make no difference, but at the top of the racquet, it does. It gives a bit more power so you can take the high balls earlier and hit evenly, since the racquet arrives faster than the ball."
The question is whether his recent shoulder pain will suffer as a result. Nadal must have given the matter thought for and against those three extra grams. The wearing out of his body remains a source of concern for the Spaniard for whom the game, unlike that of Roger Federer, does not favor his physique. "I do not know what state I will be in when I retire. The courts are hard, like here in Melbourne, at the US Open, in Miami and at Indian Wells – they are very hard on the body as well. Look at Lleyton Hewitt and his knee and hip injuries."
For Rafa, the hard surfaces are problematic, but also the faster balls and a merciless ranking system. Hence his crusade against an overloaded playing schedule…But about that, he does not have much to say. "I will only comment if there is a real opportunity to change. But for now, seeing as we do not have the necessary support in the world of tennis, there is no hope of change. So, apart from filling your newspapers, that does nothing for me, and if you are looking for someone to speak negatively about the sport, I will not."
Roger Federer reportedly told the New York Times that the comments of some players, Nadal among them, were tarnishing the image of tennis. Such is the burden of champions: each word has a resounding effect.
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