Rafael Nadal will return to the court on Tuesday as he seeks to move closer to a place at the season-ending ATP World Tour Finals. The Spaniard will take on Italian Paolo Lorenzi in the first round of the China Open, his first match since a dramatic five-set defeat to Lucas Pouille in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sept. 4.
The Spaniard will begin the tournament in the eighth and final qualifying spot in the race for the end-of-year showpiece event in London – the one major prize that he has yet to claim in his gloried career. Nadal has just a 330-point edge on ninth-placed Tomas Berdych after the Czech won the title in Shenzhen on Sunday.
“It's always an important thing,” Nadal said during his pre-tournament press conference in Beijing. “Four tournaments [left] for trying to qualify. I'm going to try.”
After Beijing, Nadal will move straight to Shanghai for a Masters 1000 event ahead of tournaments in Basel and Paris on indoor hard courts. Those events represent the final chances for Nadal to avoid missing out on qualifying for the World Tour Finals for the first time since 2004, when he was aged just 18.
That consistency has come despite significant injury layoffs in recent years. And the 30-year-old has again had to negotiate a long absence from the tour in 2016. During the French Open, Nadal was forced to withdraw from a wrist injury that also meant he missed out on Wimbledon.
Playing at a high level before his layoff, Nadal returned at the Olympics, where he reached the semifinals, only just missing out on a medal. He looked in good shape at the U.S. Open, too, before losing a thrilling contest to Pouille. And Nadal claims he is happy with the state of his game.
“Having injuries in the middle of the season is tougher,” Nadal said. “But being realistic, I should be happy the way I came back after the injury – I played a good US Open. I lost a match against a very good player, but a match that I had a big chance to win.
“I should be happy. It's obvious that I need to continue to work with the things that I need to keep improving, to try to be back at the level I was before the injury this year. I was playing great.”
Nadal’s hopes of having a good run in Beijing have been aided by the withdrawal through injury of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. The Serbian’s absence means Nadal becomes the second seed and cannot meet top seed Andy Murray until the final. Nadal is unlikely to be looking too far ahead, however, with Pouille a potential third-round opponent. Indeed, Nadal has stressed that he is fully focused on his opening match on Tuesday (at 2.30 a.m. EDT) against Lorenzi, a veteran ranked 39th in the world.
“I need to play well from the first day because if not, I'm not going to win against Lorenzi,” Nadal said.