MELBOURNE – Defending champion Rafael Nadal admitted on Saturday he felt vulnerable heading into the Australian Open after two straight defeats in the build up and said that Novak Djokovic was the clear favourite.
The 22-time Grand Slam winner crashed in his season-opening match at the United Cup in Sydney to 12th-ranked Cameron Norrie and then again to Australia’s Alex de Minaur after dropping six consecutive games.
The Spaniard, 36, has lost six of his last seven matches stretching back to defeat by Frances Tiafoe in the US Open’s last 16.
Asked if he felt vulnerable, the Melbourne Park’s top seed admitted: “Of course, without a doubt. I have been losing more than usual, that’s part of the business… I need to build again this confidence with myself with victories.”
With world no. 1 Carlos Alcaraz out because of injury, Nadal believes that his long-time rival Djokovic is the clear favourite.
He told Spanish reporters: “If we talk about favourites, on Saturday before the start of the tournament, there is no doubt that he is the top favorite to win the title.
“But tournaments are not won on the Saturday before, you have to work for two weeks, although he has shown that he knows how to do it very well.”
Despite losing his only two matches in 2023, Nadal insisted he was improving by the day, and is feeling “faster in the legs”.
In the first round on Monday, he faces emerging 21-year-old Briton Jack Draper, while Djokovic opens his tournament against unseeded Spaniard Roberto Carballes Baena on Tuesday.
Djokovic, whose refusal to get vaccinated against Covid-19 caused him to be deported ahead of the 2022 tournament and barred from competing in the United States, said the hiatus allowed him to regroup on the practice court.
The 35-year-old Serb later clinched his seventh Wimbledon crown and capped a year of disruption by winning the ATP Tour Finals for a sixth time in Turin. He also won the Adelaide International last Sunday.
Djokovic, whose visa ban has since been lifted by the Australian government, said on Saturday: “The fact that I wasn’t playing for several months beginning of last year allowed me to really get together with my team and work on my body, on my strokes, which has later helped me to achieve some great results.”
The fourth seed, who has been having light training after picking up a hamstring strain in Adelaide, will be eyeing a record-extending 10th Australian Open crown to equal Nadal’s record of 22 Slam titles. He was warmly received by a packed crowd at Rod Laver Arena on Friday night during a practice match against home hero Nick Kyrgios.
With Ashleigh Barty retired after ending Australia’s long wait for a home champion at Melbourne Park by winning the 2022 women’s title, locals will hope Kyrgios can finally claim a maiden Grand Slam crown and end the 47-year drought for a home men’s winner.
Having often left some fans cold with his on-court histrionics, Kyrgios said it was now a privilege to feel Australia wanted him to win and be one of the favorites after his best season in 2022.
But the 27-year-old said that “there’s a lot of stress, as well”, adding: “It’s hard to kind of just focus on what I need to do.”
Third seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, meanwhile, hopes to bring the Samurai spirit to his game and is determined to show more consistency after reaching the semi-finals in Melbourne in 2022 but failing to move past the fourth round at the other three Grand Slams.
The 24-year-old, who wore the jersey of Japan’s national football team in training, said: “I think there’s so many lessons you can take – even tennis players… The fighting spirit behind the Samurais, all these fighters that led Japan to its modern society today.” AFP, REUTERS