Catch me if you can
Early signs of promise as Nadal easily dispatches Berdych at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.
The hours leading up to his first “competitive” match in two months had a distinctly laidback feel. Rafael Nadal, the 14-time grand-slam winner and defending champion here, spent his afternoon engaged in a coaching clinic, rallying with a rotation of excitable kids while simultaneously answering questions from fans, including “What’s your favourite city?” (Mallorca, unsurprisingly) and “who’s your favourite footballer?” (Lionel Messi, more surprisingly given his ties to Real Madrid).
From there it was to Centre Court for a quick photo opportunity and a game of football tennis with UAE football star – and fellow Nike ambassador – Omar Abdulrahman.
But if you thought Nadal would carry such nonchalance onto the tennis court for his Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) quarter-final match with Tomas Berdych, then you would be very much mistaken.
Famed for his intensity and ferociousness as much as his gravity-defying topspin forehand, Nadal began his campaign in Abu Dhabi in typical Nadal fashion.
The Spaniard, 30, spoke ahead of the tournament of feeling “healthy”, the wrist injury that curtailed his 2016 season in October cleared, while the troublesome knees that have affected much of his career “are not suffering now”.
The early signs are encouraging.
A sizeable crowd at the International Tennis Centre in Zayed Sports City, most of whom were in attendance primarily to witness Nadal in action, were treated to some mesmerising tennis from the former world No 1.
The first set was vintage Nadal, who was quick to find his range on both wings, his topspin groundstrokes working to devastating effect – pulling Berdych from side to side to create the angles and land a decisive blow.
It is a tactic upon which Nadal has built his empire, and last night Berdych simply had no answer. The return of serve came back at Berdych deep and purposeful, ensuring Nadal dictated terms regardless of whether he was serving or receiving.
After six games and 26 minutes, Nadal had won the opener. Granted, Berdych was well below his best but Nadal refused to give him an inch.
Berdych, who had his own injury concerns last season, most notably missing the US Open due to appendicitis to end a run of 52 consecutive grand slam appearances, put up a far greater fight in the second set. The Czech world No 10 found some consistency in both his groundstrokes and serve, even applying enough pressure to create break points of his own.
But once Nadal overcame the Berdych resistance, the Spaniard reasserted his pressure, until it proved fatal in the ninth game when the only break of the set offered Nadal the chance to serve out the match.
So far, so good for Nadal, who takes on world No 3 Milos Raonic in today’s second semi-final in a repeat of last year’s final.
On that occasion Nadal prevailed in straight sets, triggering a wave of optimism that the former world No 1 could use his stint in Abu Dhabi as a launch pad to rediscover past glories.
Ultimately, 2016 proved disappointing by Nadal’s immeasurably high standards as injuries once again took their toll and limited his season.
While it is competitively contested, MWTC is still a tune-up event so it would be foolhardy to go overboard when assessing Nadal’s victory over Berdych, as impressive as it was. Concerns surrounding his long-term health will remain given his rotten luck over the past few years.
However, after a two-month absence to deal with his wrist injury, there is no denying Nadal looks sharp, confident, and raring to go for the new season.
Let us just hope that, this time, his body does not betray him.
For a video of Rafael Nadal playing football-tennis with UAE and Al Ain star Omar Abdulrahman, go to www.thenational.ae/sport
Concerns surrounding his long-term health will remain given his rotten luck over the past few years
Rafael Nadal has his court covered well as he goes for a backhand return against Tomas Berdych at Zayed Sport City in Abu Dhabi.