Just over a week on from his defeat in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal is back on more comforting ground. The world No. 3 had a 17-match winning streak against Tomas Berdych snapped in the last eight in Melbourne as he suffered an upset straight-set loss to crash out of the first Grand Slam of 2015. But on Monday, Nadal confirmed through his Facebook page that he had returned to training in his home of Mallorca and, to his doubtless relief, was back on his favored clay surface.
In many ways, Nadal’s defeat at the Australian Open was of little surprise. The Spaniard had barely played since exiting last year’s Wimbledon, having been hampered by a wrist injury and appendicitis in the second half of 2014. Even Nadal was pointing out that he arrived in Melbourne severely undercooked on the back of losing his only ATP Tour match of the new year. Given those preparations, he took the positives from his efforts at a tournament that he won for the only time in 2009.
“Without being at my top level of tennis, I was able to be here in quarterfinals,” he said after defeat by Berdych. "It’s not a bad result at all for me arriving here the way I arrived: only with one match. So taking the positive part, that's the thing that I have to take. That's just the beginning of the season, and I want to keep having chances to compete well against everybody.”
Coming back from his layoff on the hard courts, which demand more of Nadal physically, was always going to be an extra challenge. After his last injury layoff two years ago Nadal returned on the clay surface that he has dominated on for the past decade -- winning a record nine French Open titles. And it is a repeat of the form he showed on his previous comeback that he will now be targeting. Like in 2013, Nadal hoping to kick-start his season in Latin America. Two years ago he reached the final in Vina del Mar, Chile, and won events in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Acapulco, Mexico to start an extraordinary run that led to him finishing the year having won two Grand Slam titles and as the world No. 1.
This time the 28-year-old is preparing for tournaments in Rio de Janeiro, starting Feb. 16, and a week later in Buenos Aires. After playing the two big Masters 1000 hard-court events in the United States, in Indian Well and Miami, in March, it will then be off to Europe and back to the clay for what has traditionally been Nadal’s favorite stretch of the tennis season.
For Nadal, the next few weeks are of vital importance, not just to rediscover his peak physical shape and full confidence in his game, but to preserve his place in the rankings. Nadal has slipped more than 3000 points behind No. 2 ranked Roger Federer and close to 8,000 away from top-ranked Novak Djokovic. He will now have one eye over his shoulder, with Andy Murray’s run to the Australian Open final having seen him move up to No. 4 and close to within three hundred points of Nadal.
Adding further pressure is the fact that Nadal had a much better first part of last season than those immediately behind him in the rankings, meaning he has significantly more points to defend.