Having suffered a humbling start to 2016, Rafael Nadal is getting back on the clay in an effort to help kick-start his season. Currently training at home in Mallorca, the Spaniard has taken a late wild card into the ATP 250 event in Buenos Aires next week following his first-round upset loss at the Australian Open.
“I want to thank the organizers of the Argentina Open for giving me this wild card to play in Buenos Aires,” he said, reports the ATP Tour website. “The times that I've played in Argentina have been special and full of good memories because the people are some of the best in the world.
“I asked for this wild card after the bad result in Melbourne and I hope that Buenos Aires will once again be the start of a good run for me. I will try my best to make sure it is.”
Nadal will be defending his title in the Argentine capital, having beaten Juan Monaco in the final a year ago. A similar result this time around will be equally welcome, although will not be straightforward, with David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and John Isner all competing.
For Nadal, it is vital that he starts collecting some significant ranking points. Having already dropped to No. 5, he is faced with the prospect, as was the case at the Australian Open, of being thrown into the same quarter of a Grand Slam draw with world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Yet rather than closing the gap to the top four, Nadal is slipping back and in danger of dropping further down the rankings. Ferrer, Kei Nishikori and Tomas Berdych are all within 700 points of Nadal, while No. 4 Stan Wawrinka has an advantage of almost 1500 points.
In Buenos Aires, as well as the following week in Rio de Janeiro, Nadal will be keen to rack up some points on the clay. Following two hard-court events in Indian Wells and Miami, he will then look to the European clay-court season, beginning in April, to amass the success required to move into the top four. Long term, the situation could be helped by Federer being ruled out with knee surgery, although the Swiss world No. 3 has a huge lead over Nadal on the points list.
Yet although the start to the year has been far from ideal, it needn’t be all doom and gloom for the former world No. 1. A strong end to 2015, including wins over Wawrinka and Andy Murray at the ATP World Tour Finals meant he entered the season in far better spirits than 12 months earlier. Showcasing a more aggressive approach, Nadal also impressed in his first tournament of 2016, reaching the final of the Qatar Open.
The negative was that in a crushing loss to Djokovic in Doha and then in the five-set defeat to Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne, he struggled to maintain his aggression. It is something Nadal himself conceded after the loss in Melbourne.
“I was practicing little bit different, trying to be more inside the court,” he said. “It's obvious that all the changes are not easy and especially are difficult to make that happen when you are competing.”
Nadal will now hope that getting back on the clay will breed the confidence required for him to fully take on board the change in style. Being in top shape by the time of the French Open at the end of May will doubtless be the top priority.
Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros, where he has won nine titles, was ended last year by Djokovic in the quarterfinals. And stopping the Serbian looks to be an even tougher task this time around, when he will be going not only to complete his Career Grand Slam but to take possession of all four Grand Slam titles at the same time. Djokovic, though, insists that Nadal remains the man to beat.
“You would be disrespectful to everything he has achieved in his career on clay courts if we didn't see him this year -- and each year -- as the ultimate challenge on clay courts,” he told Australian news agency AAP. “Everybody knows he is the king of clay. He's achieved so much on that surface. He's made history. He's won the French Open nine times.”