Rafael Nadal must go into the Australian Open as one of the pre-tournament favourites, despite his recent battles with injury and Covid-19, says six-time Grand Slam champion Boris Becker.
Nadal, a former winner at Melbourne Park in 2009, only made his return from injury at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi after four months out with a foot injury.
Although last month’s return ended in a straight sets defeat to Andy Murray, Nadal admitted he would be able to take many positives out of the performance.
Australian Open
Nadal, Djokovic and Alcaraz all included on Australian Open men's entry list
A positive Covid-19 test later in the month threatened to hamper his preparations for the Australian Open, which begins in less than a week.
However, Nadal allayed those fears by winning the recent Melbourne Summer Set without dropping a set, extending his streak of winning at least one ATP Tour title for a 19th straight year.
The Spaniard has been drawn against American Marcos Giros in the first round of the Australian Open, and Becker believes supporters shouldn’t write off Nadal’s chances of going deep into the competition.
"As long as Rafael Nadal plays tennis and gets the chance, he is never a dark horse for me, but always one of the tournament favourites,” Becker told Eurosport Germany’s Das Gelbe vom Ball podcast.
“I think that in the back of his mind he just wants to win [the French Open] again. But he has to play tournaments first, preferably a Grand Slam.
“He has no pressure, nobody expects anything from him.
“The preparation was bad because of his Corona illness [but] I don't know anyone in the main draw who would like to play Nadal in the first or second round.
That is his nimbus - he is one of the ultimate superstars.
“And again, he can also get [his 21st career win at a Grand Slam tournament]. I think that's another reason why he's playing in Melbourne.
“These top stars who have won so much, they wouldn't be playing if they didn't think they had a chance."
Becker also expects world number three Alexander Zverev to challenge for the first senior Grand Slam title of his career, having won the Junior Australian Open in 2014.
The German managed to reach the quarter-finals or later in three of the four Grand Slam event in 2021, but has only ever played one final; a gruelling five-set defeat to Austria’s Dominic Thiem at the 2020 US Open.
“He is now in the form of his life and the big titles have to come,” Becker admitted.
“If it doesn't happen this year, then the next generation will come and the pressure will increase a bit.
Questions will get louder.
“We are still at the beginning of the year and I am confident that Sascha can win the Australian Open. But it won't be a walk in the park.
“The competitors will not be sleeping; the top players will no longer have any pressure when they play Sascha Zverev in the second week.

German tennis star Alexander Zverev.

Image credit: Getty Images

“He is suddenly the favourite and people expect him to reach at least the semi-finals.
“That's a different expectation and you have to be able to deal with that."

Stream the 2022 Australian Open live and on demand on discovery+. A subscription for discovery+ is now £29.99 for the first year for UK users, down from £59.99
'Whatever it takes' - Federer reveals Nadal one of the first he told he was retiring
Exclusive: Zverev aiming to emulate Federer and Nadal with injury comeback