While Rafael Nadal is rallying inside the John Cain Arena, named after the labor leader who presided over the state of Victoria for almost a decade in the eighties, his wife tries to find some access to the stands to see the training of the tennis player along with the rest of the family, already accommodated. “There’s no way, I’m going to try from above…”, she says after stepping back three or four times before the lock of the metal doors and heading up the stairs. Finally she succeeds, takes a seat in one of the funds –dotted with the presence of her father, mother, sister, agent, her communication manager and the representative of the sports firm that sponsors her– and observes the evolution of her husband , who before starting the test with Alexander Zverev has shown that he takes the preparation as seriously as the matches.
For a quarter of an hour, in the gym, a whole ritual: seated on a machine that serves to strengthen the knees and quadriceps, the athlete extends his left arm and palm so that his physio, titin, apply the oil with the brush, then the spray and then wrap the fingers with the protective tapes that prevent blisters from excessive rubbing; first phalanx of the index, second of the heart, the ring finger and the little finger; with the other hand he unlocks the mobile and in the background appears the face of his son Rafael, who accompanies him these days in Melbourne and lives his first Grand Slam. Everything is ready. Now yes, Nadal, well wrapped up, is “ready” to take off in this Australian Open in which he, defending champion and leader of the great historical race, faces the challenge of the man who returns with desire and sharp fangs , perhaps with more appetite than ever.
“I don’t feel like a villain, that’s the past,” Novak Djokovic replies to the journalist who invites him to rewind towards the arrest and expulsion from the country for his refusal to get vaccinated. “If I held a grudge, I probably wouldn’t be able to move on and be here today. My view of Australia has always been very positive and my results are a testament to how I feel in Melbourne. I wanted to come back here and play, which in the end is what I do best. I really wanted to come back and I am confident that I will make people enjoy themselves, bring good vibes”, the Serbian explained, backed by his supremacy in the tournament (nine titles), on concrete (66 trophies out of the 92 he has) and the good run in the pre-tournament preparatory tour. He won in Adelaide, matched the successes of the Spaniard (another 92) and before takeoff he throws a riot because he can catch him at the historic peak of the racket.
“Of course I have that motivation,” he says openly. “I want to be the best, it’s no secret,” she continues. “I am in very good shape. I ended the year in the best possible way [cuatro bingos de octubre aquí] and I continued the same in Adelaide. I look good, I always look good”, compliments Nole, whose record reflects 82 wins and only eight losses in the major of the Antipodes. Twice he played against Nadal, in the 2012 final –the longest in history, 5h 53m– and the 2019 final; both won. “It seems that he has come well prepared. Today, he is the top favorite to win the title. [el día 29]without a doubt”, remarks the Spaniard, who qualifies: “what happens is that you have to work and do it well for two weeks, and in sport, what today seems impossible sometimes stops being so”.
When scanned, the man from Manacor nods. It looks good, he considers that the base to try the revalidation “is good” and far from thinking of a hypothetical crossover with Belgrade in the final, he warns against the clash next morning (4.30, Eurosport) with the British Jack Draper, a young left-hander (21 years old, 40th in the world) who has climbed more than 200 positions in his first adventure in the elite and has scratched wins against high-profile players.
“He has a great career ahead of him. That the first round is one of the worst that I could touch? It is a reality, but one has to live with what is there”, she affirms. I have lost more than usual [seis de los últimos siete partidos], but I accept it. If I am able to win on Monday, I think I will have my options. I need to win a couple of games, but if I don’t here, I’ll keep working; I think I’m improving and I’m progressing every week, I’m playing well”, adds the Spaniard, whom history places before a double challenge: in the case of winning for the third time in Melbourne (2009 and 2022) he would catch Serena Williams, retired with 23 big in the locker, and would surpass the American as the tennis player (man or woman) with the greatest difference between her first success on a big stage (June 2005) and her last (June 2022); that is, 17 years and seven months, for the 17 and five of the multi-champion (1999-2017).
A troop full of unknowns
He and Djokovic set the pace. Carlos Alcaraz, the only one who managed to steal a slice of the cake from them in 2021, is absent due to a last-minute injury, the rest of the applicants appear as unknowns. The Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas resists the jump in a major and has collided three times against the barrier of the semifinals in Australia; the Russian Daniil Medvedev was stuck in the defeat against Nadal a year ago and despite having played two grand finals, the Norwegian Casper Ruud needs another stretch to defeat the strongest on hard court; the German Alexander Zverev has only played two games since he broke his ankle at Roland Garros and the proposals of Auger-Aliassime, Rublev, Fritz, Rune, Berrettini or Norrie lack cooking for now.
Youth presses hard, but at the moment of truth and Roger Federer is already down, there is no more solid candidacy than those of both old rockers. Irreducible and hierarchical. “They are super good [los jóvenes] and they’re going to win Grand Slams, but I’m pretty sure the players of this generation won’t make it to 20, 21 or 22. We’re here at 36 and you need to complete a very, very long career, and the injuries and other things are there. I am not talking about level, but about different things in life ”, closes Nadal, again in Australia, again faced with the challenge of imposing himself on his own circumstances; this time, yes, Djokovic through. That is, the most difficult yet.
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