IF LESS than 12 months ago it had been suggested that Rafael Nadal would win the 2022 Australian Open, a call would have been to the ‘men in white coats’ to check on the sanity of making such a prediction.
Nadal had barely played any tennis for five months but arguably produced his best Grand Slam final victory to beat Danill Medvedev in a pulsating contest that required multiple underwear changes for anybody that watched it.
In May, the Mallorcan bagged French Open title number 13 in a much more routine affair on his favourite clay surface against the amiable Norwegian Casper Rudd.
Now new dad Rafa, who’s brought his baby to Melbourne, is not having too many people backing him once again.
Last year’s two slam wins took him top of the all-time list at 22, but arch-nemesis Novak Djokovic pulled one back at Wimbledon to put him just one behind the Spaniard in the battle to be the greatest ever.
Djokovic missed the last Aussie Open in a farce over his non-vaccination but based on his current form he’ll be the one to beat at his most successful slam tournament.
Which brings us back to Rafa, who has not looked quite the ticket, it has to be said.
He rarely moans and groans but let things rip during the enjoyable- but not to his liking- United Cup team tournament where he lost to Aussie-Costa Blanca player, Alex de Minaur, and in-form Brit Cameron Norrie.
The un-Rafa like comments have led some to suggest that not all is well in his camp after recent ‘behind the scene’ changes with foul word of ‘retirement’ being whispered in some quarters.
Perhaps being a first-time dad and the strong possibility that this will be his last top-flight year might be causing his brain to tick over in unexpected ways.
The first round Melbourne Park draw could have been kinder to the champion.
Rather than facing a qualifier or somebody down the rankings, he’ll have to face the exciting young British prospect Jack Draper, who wasn ‘t that far from being seeded.
Draper’s reaction to the pairing was that of excitement- something that won’t be shared by Nadal as his tennis shoes will have to avoid a banana skin skid and a quick flight home to Mallorca.
The match will start no earlier than 4.30 am on Monday on the impressive Rod Laver Arena.
If victorious, Nadal has a stinker of a draw with a last 16.round encounter pencilled in against big American, Frances Tiafoe, followed by Medvedev, Tsitsipas, and then if the seedings work out, Uncle Novak in the final.
It could have been worse for Rafa, as Murcia’s world number one Carlos Alvarez isn’t there as he continues to recover from a nasty muscle tear.
Despite winning only one of his last seven matches, Nadal appears not to be lacking confidence.
“I’m not unhappy with the preparations as I train a lot and I think I’m in good shape, but I need to win matches,” he said.
It’s not been a perfect build up for the Spaniard, but neither was last year.
He’s a big occasion player as his record shows and pre-Grand Slam form can often be thrown out of the window, which Nadal hopes will be the case once again over the next fortnight or so.