MELBOURNE -- Rafael Nadal is that guy. He hardly studied for the test; so don’t be surprised if he fails. Really, he just threw this presentation together; so don't expect a fancy PowerPoint. He didn’t even write down his wedding toast and is going to keep this brief; so don’t expect any soaring rhetoric or anything to compete with the beautiful words of the maid of honor. He hasn’t played much golf this year; so he’ll be happy just putting the ball in the fairway.
Add this to the list of Nadal’s gifts: he is masterful—or mediocre, as he would assess it—at managing expectation. Ours. And, one suspects, his. He is not pleased with his form. He is not happy with his game. His opponent is truly dangerous.
To be clear, this is not a knock on the guy. We all have our ways of dealing with expectation. Nadal’s is to lower the bar. And then bury it underground. And if critic perceives this as sandbagging (claybagging?) well, what’s the alternative? “I’m a 14-time grand Slam champ. You really think I’m going to lose to this guy?”
Nadal has been particularly dismissive of his chances here in Melbourne. As a former champion (2009) and a finalist last year, surely he is one of the favorites, no?
“No, I don't consider myself one of the favorites here. Last year, yes. This year is a different story. Would be lying if I say I feel that I am ready to win today,” he said in a pre-tournament interview.
Yet this year, his self-deprecating and minimizing of his chances may be justifiable. Since winning the 2014 French Open—tying Pete Sampras with 14 career majors—his trajectory has been downward. He has lost in the six events he has entered. And his six losses have been to players with an average ranking of, get this, 93. His most recent defeat came at the hands of 34-year-old German Michael Berrer in Doha just last week.
Nadal’s slippage owes, of course, to injury. Wrist, knees and back, with appendicitis throw in. The physical toll breeds a mental toll. More Nadal: “Every time you come back (from injury) you have doubts, fears,” he said yesterday. “Is true that having a Grand Slam that early in the season after injury is not the ideal thing. But here we are.”
“Here” was Rod Laver Arena, where Nadal played Mikhail Youzhny today. And, after a few shaky moments early Nadal did what he does best. He whipped his forehand and curled his backhand and showed off his persistently underrated skills at the net, winning 15 of 18 advances. Though Youzhny is no slouch—he has beaten Nadal four times in 15 meetings—it looked like he was playing an entirely lesser version of the same sport. Better on every dimension, Nadal won 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, reminding us of just how devastatingly well he can play.
Thus is what we forget about Nadal. He may be incapable of playing a full season. But when he’s healthy, he doesn't take much for him to find his form. Even he struggled to temper his excitement afterwards. “Very positive result for me. I think very good start,” he allowed. That qualifies as flat-out boasting by his standards.
A few more matches like this, and we’ll say what he will not. He can win this tournament.
A little Q&A:
I was just filling out my Australian Open draw and I noticed that Jurgen Melzer had qualified for the main draw. Did I miss something? How is Melzer ranked so low that he had to play qualifiers?
• We say it again, it's a cruel sport, this tennis. Melzer is 33. He is a little dinged up in 2014, starts the year late and struggled to win matches—including only one win at a Slam. He is a name, but not a NAME so it’s not as though he can feast on wild cards. Suddenly, 2014 ends and he’s outside the top 100. Irony: Melzer qualified by beating Steve Darcis in the final round. It was, of course, Darcis, who beat Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon in 2013.
I was talking to a former player today about the concerns over Sloane Stephens and some of the same applies. Beyond the confidence blow, you slip below a certain point and the machinery works against you. You’re outside the top 32 and, unseeded, you are suddenly likely to face a higher-ranked opponent by the third round. Your match times become less favorable. Wild cards don't last forever. This is mostly the market speaking, but in many ways, the deck is stacked in favor of the top players. And for those who slip a bit, it can tough to regain some traction.
Your vote for Leander Paes in the Hall of Fame -- yay or nay?
• I think yay. For all sorts of reasons. Beyond the titles (55 and counting), how about longevity? Now, in his 40s, Paes is starting his 25th season as a pro. He has played an integral role bringing tennis to India.
In the past we have proposed a special wing for doubles: it somehow doesn’t right to exclude players like Paes and Daniel Nestor. It also seems a bit unfair to compare their achievements to singles players who covered a full court, played under greater physical strain and were superior head-to-head players.
Why don’t more tennis players wear sunglasses?
• Good question. More do than you would think—Sam Stosur, Denny Istomin, Jerzy Janowicz—though few of the top stars. The complaint one occasionally hears: “I don't pick up the ball as well.” Riddle me this, though: many doubles players wear sunglasses. Wouldn’t their ability to pick up the ball would be much more important?
• It’s Monday afternoon and already we have upsets.
1. Ana Ivanovic goes out to Lucie Hradecka, a brutal loss.
2. Teenagers Belinda Bencic, Ana Konjuh and Borna Coric all go out.
3. The temperatures are in the mid 70s.
• Tennis Channel Plus is now on AppleTV and if you have it, you can sign up/purchase directly through Apple TV using your iTunes account. (You do not need to download anything on Apple TV. The TC Everywhere app is already there.)
• Viktor Troicki and Jiri Vesely both had to qualify for events last week. Both won the titles (Vesely in Auckland, Troicki in Sydney) believed to be the first time that two qualifiers won titles the same week. The two faced each other in round one – and Triocki edged Vesely 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3 on Monday.
• Spare a thought for Juan Martin del Potro, who withdrew, claiming that his wrist—his Achilles wrist—still prevents him from earnest competition.
• Del Potro’s withdrawal opened a slot for Hiro Moriya of Japan. The result: 11 Asian players in the draw.
• Always fun (and often depressing) to comb through the qualifying draw. Shahar Peer, for instance, did not make it. Michael Russell, age 36, did.
• Here's an interesting Serena Williams interview.
• Dayasagar from Gothenburg notes: Perhaps the first Federer to commit a crime!
ENJOY THE TENNIS, EVERYONE!