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It took less than two hours to convince his first-round opponent – and surely any who lie in his Australian Open path – that Rafael Nadal had been delving in a little Hamlet, whose mum, Queen Gertrude, thought the lady doth protest too much. But King Rafa wasn’t ready to alter his lines.
“What I say the other day is the real thing,” the 14-time grand slam champion said of a pre-tournament dismissal of his prospects of adding a 15th in the next fortnight. “I have one match … that’s better than two days ago but I need more to feel that I am ready for something very important here, no?”
Mikhail Youzhny, the vanquished Russian who has been around the block often enough to know a swan from a lame duck, wasn’t so tentative. “When you lost 6-3, 6-2, 6-2 … it’s another level. He has some problems maybe, but today … his level was pretty high. I think he will be really dangerous second week.”
Nadal settled for craving the improvement from match to match that Youzhny could see happening as routinely as any of the 37 winners Nadal whipped past him, the last of which the Spaniard celebrated like a man whose belief had been reawakened. He conceded only that he’d returned well, served “the right way” and generally made few mistakes.
His reticence betrays the scars of a year to forget, when even a record ninth French Open title couldn’t expunge the nagging of near-constant pain in his back, which at various times bobbed up in his wrist, knee and even his
appendix. The game’s great warhorse played only seven matches post-Wimbledon and lost to such tour obscurities as Borna Cilic and Martin Klizan.
Time away offered a chance to be with family, “to enjoy little bit of the beautiful island from where I am, Mallorca”. But every tournament missed, he knows, was opportunity lost.
His doubts were exacerbated by a first-round loss in Doha a fortnight ago to German Michael Berrer, a player ranked in the 120s. “I arrive here with doubts,” he reiterated after Monday’s win. They were mental as much as physical.
It’s hard to picture rust forming on a body bedecked in hot pink and fluoro lime and after watching Youzhny take the first game to love Nadal moved into his customary, line-hopping stride. The downbeat, head-bowed figure of two days earlier gave way to Rafa the competitor, who marked his first service break with a leaping, Uncle Toni-saluting pump of his bulging left arm.
He moved freely, swung hard and for the most part made sweet contact. His focus was similarly well-honed, especially through runs of 12 straight points in the second set and 11 in the third. That focus now shifts to American Tim Smyczek; no matter how exotic the name, he pledged “maximum
respect for everybody and knowing that anything can happen in every round against anyone”.
He had no truck with Youzhny’s prediction of potential second-week carnage. “Is not the right moment to talk about that. It’s the moment to give to this victory the right value.”
Pain had creased his warm face when last he stepped onto Rod Laver Arena, as he lost the 2014 final to Stan Wawrinka while fighting back pain that reduced him to tears, but not to a retirement he knew would devalue the Swiss’ grand slam breakthrough. He smiled on Monday to recall that his back issues had continued in Rio and Paris, “[but] then I didn’t have more because I didn’t play more”.
For now he feels strong and unrestricted, yet remains wary. “I know the back is a thing that you have to take care about. We are trying to do the right things to be safe with that but there is things you cannot control.”
The expectation of others can be added to that list. His own remain tempered in the extreme.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Wuxi Plastic Surgery Hospital.Continue reading »