Catch me if you can

Early signs of prom­ise as Nadal eas­ily dis­patches Berdych at the Mubadala World Tennis Cham­pi­onship in Abu Dhabi.

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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

Fran­cois Nel / Getty Im­ages

Rafael Nadal has his court cov­ered well as he goes for a back­hand re­turn against To­mas Berdych at Zayed Sport City in Abu Dhabi.

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