x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A UAE springboard to more success for Nadal

The Spanish world No 1 looks to defend his title in the capital in the hope that it will set up a prosperous 2011.

Rafael Nadal triumphed in Abu Dhabi in January and is hoping to repeat his success when the action gets underway later this month.
Rafael Nadal triumphed in Abu Dhabi in January and is hoping to repeat his success when the action gets underway later this month.

A victory in the World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago proved the springboard for Rafael Nadal to enjoy the most successful year of his career.

The world No 1 is hoping his return to Zayed Sports City for the New Year's exhibition - which features his main adversary Roger Federer and four others from the world's top 20 - will set him up for another productive campaign.

A recurrence of his knee problems forced Nadal to retire from his quarter-final match against Andy Murray at the Australian Open, but that was to be the only setback for the Spaniard.

He won the French Open title for a fifth time at Roland Garros, and a month later he claimed his second Wimbledon title.

But the highlight of his year came in September when he won the US Open at Flushing Meadows for the first time and joined an elite group of only seven men who have won all four majors.

Despite a loss to Federer in last month's ATP Tour finals in London, Nadal goes into the new season as the game's dominant force, and with a hunger to win more big titles and endorse his growing status as one of his sport's all-time greats.

Nadal is on the verge of becoming only the second player in the professional era - after Rod Laver in 1969 - to hold four major titles at the same time.

He could complete that clean sweep by reclaiming the Australian Open crown he took for the first time in 2009 when he defeated Federer in a five-set thriller.

He is, however, keen to play down that potential landmark.

"I am not really thinking along those lines at the moment, although I know this is something relevant," he said.

"To me the important thing is to be ready, try my best, give it all and try to win. Then the rest is something I will look at once I finish my career."

There is a possibility that when the time comes to reflect on his accomplishments, Nadal may be able to look back as fondly as Federer, who holds the record of 16 grand slam triumphs.

"I think that what Roger has done is really difficult to achieve," said Nadal, who at the age of 24 is more than halfway towards matching his Swiss rival's efforts over the past decade with nine already to his name.

"I would be happy if I win that much but I will also be happy if I know I always tried my best," he said. "It doesn't matter to me if I equal the record or not. I see it very far away in any case."

Nadal, who has been labelled the "King of Clay" due to his dominance of the red surface on which he once went unbeaten in 81 matches, is reluctant to pick a favourite from his nine grand slams so far.

"I think they all have a special meaning and they were achieved in special circumstances," he said. "It would be unfair to point out one in particular."

Three more years like the last one would take him past Federer, assuming the Swiss does not add to his haul. Nadal is confident of lasting that long after coming through the worst of his fitness problems.

"I am feeling great now and playing good tennis," he said.

"As long as I am healthy and able to compete at the highest level I'll be around hopefully for a long time."

Nadal and Federer are the only-ever presents through the three-year history of the Abu Dhabi tournament and the Spaniard has no plans to change a New Year's routine which he has clearly enjoyed.

He reached the final in the inaugural event in 2009 before losing to Murray and last year triumphed in the final by defeating Robin Soderling in straight sets.

"Abu Dhabi is a great way to start the season and prepare for the tournaments at the beginning of the year, especially the Australian Open," he said.

"The exhibition format allows us to compete at the highest level but without the pressure of playing for ranking points."

Exhibition or not, it would be a significant marker if he could defeat Federer in the final and retain his Abu Dhabi title.

"It is always important to win at any level," he said.

"To start playing well at the first event of the year is clearly very important.

"Confidence is very important in our sport and to gain that confidence from the beginning is very important in determining whether you perform well after that and during the whole season."

Nadal and Federer, as top seeds, have byes into the semi-finals.

Nadal will face either Tomas Berdych, the world No 6 from the Czech Republic, or Marcos Baghdatis, the 20th-ranked Cypriot, on December 31

Federer is due to meet the winner of the opening-day clash between Soderling, the fifth-ranked Swede, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Frenchman who ended the season with a ranking of 13.

wjohnson@thenational.ae