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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, January 12, 2022


"I need to win matches but the preparation is going quite well, I train a lot and I think I'm in good shape," Rafael Nadal said.

Photo credit: Kelly Defina/Getty

Rafael Nadal turned Melbourne Park practice black-and-blue today.

Clad in black, Nadal bounced around the blue hard-court with vigor.

More: Djokovic and Nadal in Opposite Halves of AO Draw

The bruising color scheme highlights the punishing path Nadal faces in his Australian Open title defense.

The top seed is bidding to defend a hard-court Grand Slam title for the first time in his career, fend off nine-time AO champion Novak Djokovic's bid to capture his 22nd career major crown and match rival Rafa's men's major mark and hold off a host of talented young contenders determined to break through down under.

Though the 36-year-old Nadal has won only one of his last seven matches, including a couple of three-set United Cup losses this month, he says he's pumped for the challenge ahead.

"I am not unhappy with the preparation," Nadal told the media in Australia. "I need to win matches but the preparation is going quite well, I train a lot and I think I'm in good shape."

The good news for Nadal is he resides in the top half of the draw opposite Djokovic, who rides a 21-match AO winning streak, in the bottom half.

The bad news?

The Spanish superstar confronts a tougher path to his fourth Melbourne final in the last seven years. 

In 17 career AO appearances, Nadal's only opening-round loss came to fellow left-hander Fernando Verdasco back in 2016.

Nadal opens the 2023 Australian Open against another lefty, big-serving Briton Jack Draper who reached his second ATP semifinal in Adelaide this week.

"It's going to be amazing to be able to play with a great champion like Rafa," Draper said. "Whatever happens, I'm going to enjoy the experience of measuring myself against someone like him on a big stage."

If seeds hold true to form, Nadal would face Frances Tiafoe, the man who knocked him out of US Open round of 16, in a fourth-round rematch. Should the second-ranked Spaniard prevail, he could be looking at a quarterfinal vs. Daniil Medvedev in a rematch of their epic five-set final, and a semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas. 

All that just to potentially get to Djokovic, who was bothered by a hamstring injury in his run to his 92nd career ATP title in Adelaide last week, but when healthy has dominated Rod Laver Arena like no other man.

The key for Nadal to navigate the chaos, says Hall of Famer and Tennis Channel analyst Lindsay Davenport, is to put together some convincing week one wins and build his confidence and game toward looming showdowns in the second week. 

If he gets there, we all saw what a resilient Nadal did in the 2022 final.

Unleashing the warrior within, Nadal delivered the comeback of his career battling by Daniil Medvedev 2-6, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to capture a men’s record 21st Grand Slam title in an epic and astounding Australian Open final.

Given his recent losing streak and advancing age, Davenport said a strong start is vital for the Grand Slam king.

"For a player that normally needs a lot of confidence, I can't imagine he has tons," Davenport told the media in a conference call to promote Tennis Channel's AO coverage starting at 5 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. "Watching him last year at Melbourne was something out of, like, a storybook fantasy it seemed like. For his ability to not only obviously get his way to that final, then to come back two sets down, almost a break down in that third set, to win, it was awesome.

"Still gives me goose bumps talking about it. I think that he needs a good first week to really give him that kind of extra push and confidence to get through the second week. We all know he can do it, right? We all know that he has the ability.

"Looks like physically he's doing better, doesn't have the ab issue. Hopefully that stays away. His foot seems to be okay. I think he needs a couple of matches where he plays really well early on in Melbourne, doesn't get too fatigued out there, doesn't get injured, gets that confidence up. If he's able to enter the second week with that kind of belief, then look out. Everybody knows that."


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