Can Rafael Nadal Win in Australia?

Rob YorkSenior Writer IJanuary 25, 2009

There is no question that Rafael Nadal looks good so far at the Australian Open. The better query would be: Does it matter?

On Saturday night in Melbourne, Nadal’s statistics against Tommy Haas—who was supposed to be his first test—were gaudy. Haas has rarely been spoken of as a threat to win a major title since 2002, but still has a potent, all-court game, managing a respectable 25 winners against 25 unforced errors.

Nadal, however, hit 53 winners and committed eight unforced errors. Stats like that suggest Pete Sampras on Wimbledon Centre Court in the mid-‘90s—not a baseliner whose serve isn’t really a weapon playing on medium-speed Deco Turf. There are times, though, when one watches what Nadal does with his forehand and wonders if the sport’s rules are being changed.

Haas came to net behind excellent approach shots—the kind that had the Spaniard on the full stretch, and several feet behind the baseline—and Nadal would stretch out that beefy left arm of his and somehow generate enough spin to hit a passing shot the looped over Haas’ 6’1" reach and dropped inside the back corner. We’ve seen him do this many a time since he stormed onto the scene in 2005, but it still amazes.

On all too many baseline rallies between the two, Haas, a veteran of more than a dozen years on tour, simply couldn’t handle the amount of kick Nadal kick generates on his groundstrokes, repeatedly sending balls long and then muttering to himself in German.

On match point, Haas hit a weak return of serve that landed at about midcourt, allowing Nadal all the time he needed to run around the backhand side and rip his final forehand winner of the evening.

Haas momentarily paused, as the ball had traveled so fast and so landed so close to the line that a challenge might have been warranted. Being down 5-2, 40-15, and having been manhandled up to that point, however, Haas instead walked to the net, knowing he’d been licked.

It was not the test many had expected the Mallorcan Mauler to receive in his third round match, though Haas was the first to take four games from the Spaniard in one set. After lopsided victories over the unknown Croat Roko Karanusic and the diminutive Christophe Rochus, it did seem a better indication of the top-ranked player’s form.

For, though he is the game’s No. 1 player and the AO’s top seed, Nadal has been granted little attention at this year’s event. Roger Federer won the last hard court slam, is seeking a record-tying 14th major and has played higher profile matches against Marat Safin and Tomas Berdych.

Meanwhile, the Scot Andy Murray has shown the best form of anyone going into the event, beating Nadal the last two times (counting the exhibition in Abu Dhabi) they’ve met and Federer the last four (ditto the AB exo).

Therefore, most fans and commentators have been speculating about the outcome of a Federer-Murray final. Does Nadal deserve to be included in that conversation?

Based on his performance against Haas, one is tempted to say yes. However, Nadal has won eight fewer hard court majors than Federer, and four fewer tournaments than Murray since late-July. Besides, if there’s anything we’ve learned about Rafa at the AO, it’s that his victories can be deceiving.

Last year, he had not even lost a set leading up to the AO semifinals, easily dispatching Jarkko Nieminen and Gilles Simon on the way. When he got there, though, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s flat forehands kept Nadal from dictating baseline play, and his incredible touch volleys neutralized the Spaniard’s passing shots. It was Nadal’s worst defeat in a major since the prior year’s AO, when the Chilean Fernando Gonzalez overpowered him the quarters.

Based on that track record, Nadal cannot yet be considered the favorite, or even a favorite to win at the AO. His next opponent is Gonzalez, after which he would face the winner of the match between Simon and Gael Monfils, who beat Nadal in a warm-up event before the AO.

Should he get to the semis, he would then likely have to face Murray, though one wonders if he’d rue playing the Scot more than he would Tsonga or James Blake, who has beaten him three times.

Ahead of the match with Gonzalez, there is reason for optimism in the Nadal camp: Gonzo has not been plowing through the field leading up the this match the way he had been in ’07—he labored to beat Lleyton Hewitt in round one and had to win a genuine epic, 12-10 in the fifth against Richard Gasquet. Should Nadal defeat Gonzalez, he would probably prefer a match with Simon; the Frenchman has blossomed in the last year into the game’s fifth-best player but lacks the explosiveness of Monfils.

Should Nadal’s form carry over into the summer, his chances for a five-peat in Paris look very good. But can he win the hard court major he lacks? Despite what we’ve seen so far, there’s no telling.