Rafael Nadal endured a torrid time at the 2016 majors; losing out in the first round of the Australian Open, withdrawing after the second round of the French Open, missing Wimbledon entirely, and beaten by Lucas Pouille in the fourth round of the major quarter-final. There was no Grand Slam quarter final for the first time since 2004.
As Nadal prepares for his comeback in 2017, one of his major goals will certainly be to address his slide in the majors- starting with the Australian Open.
Melbourne hasn’t always been a fruitful stage for Nadal. He has triumphed at the French Open a record nine times and at Wimbledon and the US Open on two separate occasions, but, he has hoisted the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup only once. Injury has played a part in his relative lack of success down under: he played through the pain barrier in his 2014 final defeat to Stan Wawrinka; had to retire during the 2010 quarter-finals, and completely sat out the 2006 and 2013 editions.
However, at full fitness, Rafa has always been a delight to watch at Melbourne Park. Win or lose, he has displayed incredible tenacity, resolve and stamina. Here is a look back at five of his most memorable Australian Open matches...
2005 fourth round - lost to Lleyton Hewitt 7-5, 3-6, 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-2
At the beginning of 2005, an 18-year-old Nadal had yet to win a Grand Slam and was unknown to the casual tennis fan. That changed after this classic encounter with Lleyton Hewitt, then ranked third in the world. For four hours, the pair battled relentlessly from the back of the court, matching each other for tireless court coverage and intensity. Nadal was poised to record one of the biggest wins of his young career when he took the third set against Hewitt, who was suffering from a hip injury. But the Aussie fought through the pain in a dramatic fourth set, eventually edging it on a tie-break. Nadal, inexperienced in five set matches, wilted during the decider, but this performance underscored what a special talent he was.
2009 semi-final - beat Fernando Verdasco 6-7(4), 6-4, 7-6(2), 6-7(1), 6-4
A 310-minute epic, this last four showdown is the second longest match in the history of the Australian Open. Nadal knew he was facing a tough competitor in compatriot Fernando Verdasco, but few could have predicted how well the lower-ranked Spaniard would play. Verdasco hit an incredible 95 winners past Nadal, whom he had never beaten before. Every time Nadal threatened to move ahead decisively, Verdasco produced an unreturnable serve or a brutally struck forehand to stay in contention. There was no indication of who would win until the very last point was played: at 4-5, 0-40, a cramping Verdasco saved two match points with a smash and a drive volley. “In the last game, I started to cry,” admitted Nadal afterwards. “It was too much tension.” But it was Verdasco who finally succumbed to the pressure: on the third match point, he double faulted. It was a sad ending to the most gruelling of contests, one that cemented Rafa’ reputation as one of the greatest fighters in the sport.
2009 final - beat Roger Federer 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-2
After the drama and exertion of the Verdasco semi-final, many wondered how much Nadal had left in the tank for the 2009 showpiece. Arch-rival Roger Federer had had the benefit of an extra day of rest, and was focussed on revenge after losing the French Open and Wimbledon finals to Nadal the previous summer. Yet the Spaniard, although obviously fatigued, was a mental rock in this match. He fought back from 2-4 down to sneak the first set, and after dropping the second, willed his tired legs to run for every ball in a tense and dramatic third, which he took on a tie-break thanks to a series of brilliant backhands. When Federer recovered to win the fourth set, Nadal’s ardent admirers worried that so much tennis had at last taken its toll on their man. Confounding expectations and physical limits, however, Nadal stormed through the decider to win his first Australian Open title. The ensuing trophy presentation was a memorable one, with a crushed and tearful Federer looking on as Nadal, exhausted and elated, beamed from ear to ear.
2012 semi-final - beat Roger Federer 6-7(5), 6-2, 7-6(5), 6-4
This match is perhaps less celebrated than the 2009 final, but it was just as compelling and even more interesting. Three years previously, Nadal and Federer had put on the latest instalment of a familiar show: Nadal scrambling for every shot and defending brilliantly, Federer unleashing stunning passing shots that few other players even think of let alone execute. Yet the pair swapped roles in the 2012 semi-final. Here, it was Nadal who produced the jaw-dropping winners, upping his aggression levels to keep Federer on the back foot. The Swiss, meanwhile, hung in the rallies with sliced backhands and topspin forehands, extending and grinding out points in a bid to coax errors from his irrepressible opponent. Nadal’s fearlessness served him well in a tight third set-tie break, and he stared down a resilient Federer in the fourth to book a spot in his second Australian Open final…
2012 final: lost to Novak Djokovic 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-5
And that final would turn into one of the most talked about matches of all time. It was tennis at its most physically demanding and gladiatorial, and, lasting five hours 53 minutes, the longest Grand Slam final of all time. Nothing separated the two iron men of tennis during five draining sets: each scrambled for every ball in a desperate pursuit of momentum. Nadal and his fans will forever remember his dramatic snatching of the fourth set, but they’ll also recall the missed backhand in the seventh game of the decider. Djokovic broke back, and with another superhuman effort, broke again to clinch a momentous victory. The loss, his seventh in a row against Djokovic, was a bitterly disappointing one for Nadal, who was on the verge of collapse during the trophy presentation. Yet he was typically gracious in defeat, and took great consolation form such a spirited performance - it was only a matter of time before he regained the upper hand in this fierce rivalry.