Rafael Nadal is returning to Hamburg for the first time since 2008, and the Spanish superstar is banking that the clay-court tournament will help him compete at his best level for the upcoming U.S. Open series.
For starters, Nadal might feel a sense of the past come alive as he travels down memory lane to arrive at a very different Hamburg. Then, Hamburg was one of the prestigious Masters 1000 venues that preceded the French Open, before it was unceremoniously displaced by the deeper pockets of Ion Tiriac’s glass palace in Madrid.
Nadal would love to come into Hamburg with the kind of energy and strength he had seven years ago when he and Roger Federer were the undisputed superpowers of their sport. It was a glorious period for him and Federer as they turned in two memorable finals.
Federer took the 2007 classic that snapped Nadal’s record-setting 81-match win streak on clay. It seemed that Federer had closed the gap against Nadal on clay until the Spaniard triumphed a third straight year at Roland Garros.
Nadal outlasted Federer in 2008, which would be his toughest test before he ravaged the French Open and dethroned his rival at Wimbledon.
Will any of this matter now, at a time when Hamburg is a level-500 tournament in late July? It’s no longer a star-studded lineup with the best field in the world, but it does have many good clay-courters filling out the draw.
Nadal has had plenty of time to brood, train and prepare for the summer stretch. Hamburg is a great choice to play in his comfort zone, and oddly the last chance for Nadal to grab a clay-court title in Europe. There are two keys to watch, as he attempts to play his way back to the top.
First, Nadal must gain control of his forehand. As it's been long the staple of his offensive success, he has not used it as effectively when it’s called upon to be a putaway weapon.
Sometimes he overtops it into the net. At other times, he seems confused as whether to flatten it out or hit with his high-hopping topspin. His erratic misses outside the lines look as if he is pressing uncomfortably, more a sign of being out of tune or reticent about his approach.
Second, Nadal has lacked the confidence to wear down his opponents. He’s shown impatience against bigger hitters as if he feels he needs to preempt their offense rather than trust his defensive retaliations with more margin of safe hitting.
He must also trust his conditioning. Whether his legs are heavier or he feels he must keep evolving, he needs to find his zone at Hamburg before heading to North America.
What he needs is a new marriage of physical and mental rejuvenation. His attack will not mirror the way he played a few years ago, but fine-tuning a simpler approach to his attack and winning the big points could make all the difference in challenging for top titles once again.
Here are a couple of competition notes. Gilles Simon and David Ferrer had to withdraw with injuries, so he loses potentially his best two opponents to test his game:
Nadal would probably love to avenge two clay-court losses earlier this year to Fabio Fognini, and there are also fine clay-courters, including Tommy Robredo, Nicolas Almagro and Roberto Bautista Agut.
Finally, Nadal is not defending any summer points from 2014, so a good showing at a level-500 tournament can help him climb into the top eight for U.S. Open seedings. There's a great chance he gets there.
Nadal’s 2013 run through the U.S. Open series was one for the ages, certainly the crown jewel to his hard-court success. He swept Montreal, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open, the first time this had been accomplished since Andy Roddick 10 years prior.
That’s not going to happen for Nadal in 2015.
Realistically speaking, Nadal could set himself up as a dark-horse contender at the U.S. Open if he can win at Hamburg, get to the semifinals at either Montreal or Cincinnati and win a couple of top-10 matchups along the way.
Maybe he can outplay another big gun like Stan Wawrinka or Andy Murray. Best of all, he would love a win against Novak Djokovic, but at this time, it might be best to avoid him altogether and see if he can get a crack at him at the U.S. Open.
If Nadal is going to resemble his 2013 form, he will need his forehand to be precise and powerful, with all levels of flatness and spin, using both sides of the court.
He would love to serve the way he did then, when he consistently located his first serve to keep his opponents guessing and set up his forehand attack. He was nearly unbreakable at the U.S. Open until the final.
So the “Rafa Watch” is on, beginning with one more shot at clay and culminating with a sizzling summer of hard courts. By then, we are going to know a lot more about Nadal’s chances at remaining a bona fide contender.