x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

French test awaits Nadal on his grand slam return

Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet have both been forced to sit out a significant part of this year's tennis programme.

Rafael Nadal's powerful ground strokes and his colourful clothing should light up the US Open over the next two weeks.
Rafael Nadal's powerful ground strokes and his colourful clothing should light up the US Open over the next two weeks.

Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet have both been forced to sit out a significant part of this year's tennis programme. Nadal has had his muscular legs chopped from under him by an attack of knee tendinitis, while Gasquet has suffered the consequences of a controversial conviction for drug abuse. Today the talented pair meet head on in what, on paper, is the pick of the first-round clashes at the US Open.

Both can claim to be worthy of higher rankings than their current positions of three and 46 respectively and their match is a confrontation that would normally not go on court until well into the second week of a grand slam tournament. Gasquet, who two years ago was tipped to go higher than his career-best seventh place, has consistently protested his innocence throughout his 10-week suspension imposed after he tested positive for cocaine in Miami in May.

He insisted that traces of the banned substance had been passed on to him by a girl he had kissed in a Florida night club and that vigorous defence received high-profile backing from Nadal as they prepared to renew hostilities for the seventh time as touring professionals. Nadal, who has emerged victorious from all six previous confrontations, said: "I support him a lot. First thing, because I believe in him. Second thing, because I think he's a very nice guy. I've known him since I was 12 or 13 years old.

"I talked with him about what happened. He told me he didn't take anything, so I believe him 100 per cent." Gasquet, 23, who was initially given a three-year suspension but has regained his tour status after a successful appeal, is delighted to be back after missing his home grand slam at Roland Garros and Wimbledon four weeks later. The Frenchman, who could not bring himself to pick up a racket during his enforced absence, arrived in New York having played only two qualifying matches in an unsuccessful attempt to play in last week's New Haven warm-up tournament.

"I've trained a lot for the last three weeks but I'm going to need time," he said, suggesting that a first conquest of Nadal is beyond him at this stage. This is Nadal's third tournament since the former world No 1 was given the all-clear to return to action. It is the only one of the four grand slams to elude him and he is not expecting to complete the set this year. Nadal, who reported that his damaged knees are now "perfect" said: "You never know what can happen but reaching the quarter-finals or semi-finals would be a good result."

His projected opponents at those late stages of the tournament are Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the seventh-seeded Frenchman, and Britain's Andy Murray, who recently overtook him as No 2 in the world. They also begin their challenges today. Tsonga meets the teenage American Chase Buchanan, who looks like cannon fodder at 920 in the world, while Murray, last year's runner-up, faces a much stiffer test against the awkward Latvian Ernests Gulbis.

Murray, who is widely regarded as the biggest threat to Roger Federer at the top of the rankings, was philosophical about his difficult draw in the tournament. "You sometimes have to go through some tough moments early in the tournament but it's about finding your way through them and then playing your way in," he said. "By the end of the tournament it's going to be important to do everything well because once you get to the end of the slams, you need to raise your game, make sure you're playing great tennis."

@Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae