After the pain of a first-round defeat at the Australian Open last month, Rafael Nadal can take solace in being greeted by some welcome memories when he returns to the court on Thursday. Nadal will be in Buenos Aires, beginning his defense of the title he won last year, and taking on Juan Monaco, a close friend who he just so happened to beat in the final 12 months ago.
It could be an ideal setting for Nadal to begin his recovery from what has been an unexpectedly poor start to 2016. While it is true that the Spaniard endured his worst season in more than a decade in 2015, he also came into the new year speaking with plenty of optimism about the state of his game. There was evidence to support that confidence, too, having finished last year with some encouraging results. Yet a crushing defeat to Novak Djokovic in the final of the Qatar Open was followed by a five-set loss to Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne that put Nadal on the first flight home.
“I didn’t like at all the defeat in Australia, but that I cannot solve,” Nadal said upon his arrival in the Argentine capital this week. “It was a bad tournament. [It] just did not work out despite having prepared very well. So I'm in Buenos Aires to give my best and try to make a better presentation.
“Every season is different, but with the same purpose to fight in every tournament and finish as high as possible in the ranking. I’m happy to return to Argentina, because every time I left this country I did it with a lot of positive energy. They treat me very well here, like few places in the world.”
It is currently something of a downtime in the tennis calendar, with still more than three months to go until the second Grand Slam of the year at the French Open and the first ATP Masters 1000 event of the year not until next month in Indian Wells. Many of the top players have yet to return to the hard-graft on the tour. Roger Federer is recovering from knee surgery, Murray is at home having just welcomed the birth of his first child and world No. 1 Djokovic is still basking in the glory of an 11th Grand Slam title.
For Nadal, though, there is an opportunity to build some much needed rhythm and confidence ahead of the most important part of his season. And in heading to the clay in Buenos Aires and next week onto Rio de Janeiro, Nadal may be aiming to recreate his renaissance of three years ago. Then Nadal was coming off a seven-month injury layoff but quickly got back to winning ways on the South American clay, reaching the final in his first tournament back and winning the next two. By the end of the year, he was world No. 1, having won 10 titles, including both the French Open and the U.S. Open.
Such an extraordinary resurgence is difficult to envisage in 2016, not least because of Djokovic’s dominant position at the top of men’s tennis. There is also the fact that Nadal’s problems are more complex this time around. It is not simply a case of proving he is over his physical ailments, but also getting back the confidence and aura to his game.
Still, winning is the best medicine. And Thursday evening’s meeting with Monaco, on a court named after former French Open champion Guillermo Vilas, could yet prove the start of a run that leads Nadal to regaining his title as the king of Roland Garros in June.