Rafael Nadal has a first title of 2016 in his sights after moving into the quarterfinals of the Rio Open in Brazil. The 14-time Grand Slam champion has endured a tough start to the year, with a first-round loss at the Australian Open being followed by a semifinal defeat to Austrian up-and-comer Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires last week. But the Spaniard came through strongly to beat compatriot and former world No. 9 Nicolas Almagro in straight sets on Thursday. And back on his favorite clay surface, Nadal is continuing to seek victories and belief ahead of a crucial part of his season leading up to the French Open.
“Winning is the important thing, which gives you confidence and lets you relax,” he said after the win over Almagro, reports the Associated Press.
“I'm feeling better physically. Last week I had a little problem with my stomach during the whole week, and with the humidity—it was unbelievable. I felt so bad physically. Here I'm feeling much better because the stomach is much better. That's the key on the improvement of my game, and victory helps.”
Confidence has been visibly lacking from Nadal’s game since the start of last year, and was against Almagro when he was broken when serving for the match for the first time. He hasn’t made the last four of a Grand Slam for nearly two years and last year he relinquished his grip on the French Open title. While he has endured a welcome stretch without injury, the previously resolute mental side of his game has yet to return to its optimum level.
While not one of the premier tournaments on the ATP Tour, landing the title in Rio de Janeiro promises to be far from straightforward. The man who beat him in Buenos Aires, Thiem, is still very much alive in the draw and either he or world No. 6 David Ferrer is a potential final opponent for Nadal.
Before that, though, comes a quarterfinal with the tricky Alexandr Dolgopolov. Nadal has won five of their seven meetings, but the Ukrainian has triumphed in the last two, albeit on the grass and hard courts of London’s Queen’s Club and Indian Wells, respectively.
“It’s going to be another difficult match,” Nadal said. “He beat me on the last two matches and it´s a player that makes you change the way you play and gives you few opportunities. He is a solid player, so you need to take advantage of his mistakes.”
If Nadal can come through that test on Friday, on a center court named after former two-time French Open winner Gustavo Kuerten, he would face either Uruguay’s 45th-ranked Pablo Cuevas or Argentina’s Federico Delbonis, ranked 46 in the world, in the semifinals on Saturday.
After completing the tournament in Rio, Nadal will have a two-week break before moving onto the North American hard courts for the first ATP Masters 1000 events of the year, in Indian Wells and Miami. Just a week later the European clay-court swing will get underway, when Nadal will step up his preparations to go for an unprecedented 10th French Open title.
Rafael Nadal vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov - Start Time