Coming through a stern test in Abu Dhabi on January 1 against David Ferrer in the semi-finals of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship had given hope that Rafael Nadal was ready to move on from the struggles of 2015 and be a force again.
The 14-time major winner had come out on top of a terrific match with his Spanish compatriot, which often felt as if it was taking place in the latter stages of a ATP event, rather than an exhibition tournament.
Nadal went on to win the title in Abu Dhabi as he defeated Milos Raonic in the final 24 hours after conquering Ferrer, a result that looks even more impressive now considering Raonic’s run to the last four at the Australian Open later that month.
As Nadal talked about his “good level of tennis” following his Abu Dhabi success, the struggles of 2015, when he failed to win any of the four majors for the first time in a calendar year since 2004, seemed a distant memory.
The Spaniard refused to even talk about them, insisting they were best left to rot in the dustbin of history.
“We are in 2016 now,” he said. “We have talked enough about 2015 during the past year. Now, I want to talk about today and what’s going on. I feel ready for action.”
To prove his point, Nadal reached the Qatar Masters final a week later, although he did have a nice draw, 66th-ranked Robin Haase the highest player he faced on his way through.
But then it all went wrong as he faced world No 1 Novak Djokovic in the final.
Djokovic wrapped up the final 6-1, 6-2 in just over an hour and perhaps that defeat had a bigger part to play than Fernando Verdasco in Nadal’s first-round exit at the Australian Open two weeks later.
That loss in Doha had left Nadal shell-shocked and allowed his demons of self-doubt to break free.
“Nadal has always been a very anxious player who needs to win matches to be reassured,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, after Nadal’s loss to Verdasco.
“As long as he doesn’t win enough matches in a row, he doesn’t have the needed confidence for his shots to do their usual damage.”
To rebuild that damaged confidence, and to exorcise the ghosts of his last two defeats, Nadal has decided to return to his favourite surface, clay, and has taken a wild card for this week’s Argentina Open in Buenos Aires, a tournament he won in 2015.
“I asked for this wild card after the bad result in Melbourne,” said Nadal, who has a first-round bye and will start his campaign on either Wednesday or Thursday, against good friend Juan Monaco or a qualifier. “I want to gain confidence and get as many points as possible.”
Playing in South America, away from the often harsh European media glare and away from his biggest rivals on the court, could be the best way to rebuild that confidence.
In 2013 he made a return from knee surgery on South American clay courts and reached three consecutive finals, winning two. He went on to win two grand slams and five Masters 1000 titles that season.
The clay courts would also allow Nadal to fine tune the recent changes he has made to his racket and strings in the hopes of hitting the ball with more top spin.
“I asked him if he had not enough top spin and he replied that he had changed the ropes, especially to play the forehand with more top spin,” said Fabrice Santoro, Nadal’s International Premier Tennis League teammate, recently.
According to another former French pro, Sebastien Grosjean, Nadal has lost some of his top spin because of his desire to improve on hard courts.
“On these courts the ball is less fast and he lost spin that was his strength,” Grosjean said. “Maybe things will be different with these new ropes, especially if he plays aggressive with the backhand.”
A few ifs and buts there, but in the end, the most important thing for Nadal, as Mouratoglou pointed out, will be rebuilding his damaged confidence. He has sought the comfort of the South American clay courts to do just that, so victory in Buenos Aires and then Rio de Janeiro will be crucial ahead of the two back-to-back Masters in Indian Wells and Miami.
At the same time, poor results in South America could damage his confidence even further and could even put his career on the ropes.
Nadal, then, is walking a tightrope and not many will be envying him now.
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