Rafael Nadal: Will 20-time Grand Slam champion win another major away from French Open?
Rafael Nadal reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and could become the outright leader in the all-time Grand Slam standings at the French Open this year, but where does he sit at the top of the men's game and will he win another major away from Paris? The world No 2 is set to miss next week's ATP 500 in Rotterdam due to a back injury.
Spain's Rafael Nadal reacts after a point against Greece's Stefanos Tsitsipas during their men's singles quarter-final match
The result continued a somewhat frustrating sequence in Melbourne for Nadal, who has lost in the quarter-finals for three of the last five years and lost in the final in the other two years. It has been over 10 years since he last won the tournament.
His Grand Slam success away from Roland-Garros has also been limited in the last six years. In his last 16 appearances at majors outside of Paris he has won twice.
So where exactly does Nadal sit at the top of the men’s game after the Australian Open?
In the rankings he’s still world No 2, although only a handful of points ahead of Daniil Medvedev after he reached the final of the Australian Open.
Nadal’s Australian Open campaign is somewhat difficult to evaluate due to the back injury he suffered before the tournament, which meant he didn’t play any warm-up matches for Spain at the ATP Cup. Instead he went into the Grand Slam cold, with a niggling injury, and with practice somewhat limited by a lengthy quarantine period.
Yet in his opening four matches in Melbourne he was superb, especially in the fourth round where he dispatched 16th seed Fabio Fognini with ease.
“He played better than me probably in important moments,” he said afterwards.
Was it just fitness and the lack of match practice taking its toll? Or can Nadal no longer go the distance with the top players on hard courts over five sets? Even at his last hard-court Grand Slam win at the US Open in 2019 he nearly let it slip against Medvedev as he was pushed to five sets after winning the opening two.
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“For the first time I can recall Rafael Nadal looked really tired in that fifth set, he was beaten physically, and the others will have seen that,” said Eurosport pundit Boris Becker after Nadal’s defeat to Tsitsipas.
“His style is so physical that it is going to take a toll. I am actually surprised that he has played to this incredibly high level for so long.”
At the age of 34, it’s fair to question whether Nadal will win another Grand Slam that isn’t the French Open, which accounts for 13 of his 20 majors. A third Wimbledon victory seems unlikely at the moment while on hard courts he hasn’t shown that he can beat the best over the last year, losing to Medvedev at the ATP Finals, Alexander Zverev in Cologne, Dominic Thiem at the 2019 Australian Open, and Tsitsipas in his most recent match.
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Djokovic’s coach Goran Ivanisevic seemed to suggest he doesn’t expect Nadal to win another major away from the French Open.
“Rafa will win at least one more major; I hope not two, but one for sure,” he said after Djokovic’s win in Melbourne.
Players have won Grand Slams at Nadal’s age – Federer won his last major at the age of 36 and previous two at the age of 35 – but the physical demands Nadal places on himself are taxing. He looked to be tiring towards the end of the match against Tsitsipas as the 12-year age gap almost became apparent, something not often seen when the ‘Big Three’ are in action.
Nadal was scheduled to return to the court in Rotterdam next week but he has pulled out of the tournament due to his back issue. It’s expected he will instead return at the Miami Open later in March, when he could have slipped down to No 3 in the world – Medvedev would surpass him if he reaches the final in Rotterdam.
With the clay season coming after Miami, Nadal may well soon reclaim the No 2 ranking and win his 21st Slam, but are the chances of another Slam away from Paris diminishing?