Nadal of old charging ahead at Aussie Open

Nadal of old charging ahead at Aussie Open

Published Jan. 23, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

It doesn't take long for a player to fall out of favor, even if he's the most impressive physical specimen the sport has ever seen. Spain's Rafael Nadal, he of the bulging biceps and locomotive legs, has gone from being widely perceived as the most dominant player in the sport from May of 2008-'09, to being seen by some as a physically fragile player who might never be able to hang with the rest of the elite again.

That's what two significant injuries and an eight-month title-less streak will do to a player, even if he's only 23, owns six Grand Slam titles and is one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen.

But after his 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 chop down of the gigantic Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round, Nadal signaled that while he may not be all the way back yet, he's getting closer.

Since the French Open -- where he was shocked by Robin Soderling -- Nadal has gone 1-9 against the rest of the top 10, his sole win coming against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of the Paris Indoors. He's lost three straight times to No. 3 Novak Djokovic, three times to No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko, twice to U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro and another time to Soderling at the ATP World Tour Finals, when the Swede had cracked the top 10.

Nadal, though, could care less about the numbers. He's convinced that he's 100 percent healthy and that his form is coming around.

“The numbers are the numbers, so probably is not the best moment in my career against the top 10," Nadal said. "But two weeks ago I was one point away, no?” Nadal said of his near win against Davydenko in the Doha final. “You have some ups and downs in your career. And probably the last eight months, I had more problem than usual with my knees, later with the abdominal.”

Nadal's willingness to battle has never been in question, it's only been his fitness and form. When his knees were aching, he lost some of his speed and his ability to push opponents off the court. When his abdominals ached, he couldn't get a proper turn on the ball off the ground and couldn't extend enough on his serve.

But against Karlovic, none of those problems were apparent, as Nadal reflexed a number of impossible returns off the 6-foot-10 Karlovic's service bombs, hooked his forehand deep and to sharp angles, stepped gamely into his two-handed backhand and even came into net to close out points.

“Today the match is probably one of the most difficult matches to play well because it is without rhythm all the time,” Nadal said. “So the victory is the only thing in this kind of match. I returned aggressive. When I had a chance to (belt) the ball, I did well. So I'm happy for that.”

While Nadal has performed reasonably well, he'll have to step up to another level entirely in the quarterfinals, where he'll meet the competent and game Andy Murray. The Scot also took the legs out from under a tall bomber, John Isner, and did so in straight sets.

Nadal may be 7-2 lifetime against Murray, but Britain's finest player has won two out of their last three contests, including their biggest one, in the 2008 U.S. Open semifinals. There, Murray played more aggressively than Nadal did, taking any high hopping balls that landed short and whacking them down the line.

Murray's two-handed backhand holds up just fine against Nadal's fearsome forehand when the Spaniard isn't cracking it, and he's willing to sneak into the net when given the opportunity. Nadal is capable of body slamming Murray if can get him into a cage match, but he has to be willing to swing out.

“I have to play aggressive and get him two meters behind the baseline or I'll be on the next flight home,” Nadal said. “He's one of the most talented players on tour. He can play offensive, he can play defensive. He's a big player and he's a winner.”

The wily Murray says he has tactics that can work against Nadal, but he has to be able to weave his way into the fabric of the match. It's difficult to play cute against the Spaniard and Murray will have to bury the ball whenever he gets a chance.

By no means will Nadal easily concede his title, and every time he steps into Rod Laver Arena, his memories of outlasting Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer in five-set classics for his first Aussie Open title must delightfully fill his head. If they stay with him and he can rediscover the same relentless level he showed in 2009, then a title defense isn't out of the question.

“I don't know what's gonna happen after tomorrow,” Nadal said. “But I am here to fight.”

Russian women going in different directions

It's hard to gauge which elite Russian woman will show up and play her best at a major, so it was a bit of a surprise that veteran and No. 9 seed Nadia Petrova shocked No. 3 Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, given that she went into the match with a 1-6 record against her countrywoman.

The injury-riddled Petrova worked on her fitness during the offseason and looks spry running the ball. She's also dictating from the first bounce, which is why she was able to wipe out Kim Clijsters and now Kuznetsova. She's hoping to reach her first Grand Slam final in Melbourne after failing twice in Paris to reach the big dance.

“That's why I'm working hard and digging deep, because I know there's still a lot to accomplish,” Petrova said. “There's still a lot to let out. I really want to finally be a complete player. I want to quit tennis knowing that I've done everything possible.”

Petrova will face seven-time Slam champ Justine Henin in the quarters, who won her third straight marathon match, this time over another Belgian, 20-year-old Yanina Wickmayer 7-6, 1-6, 6-3 in two hours and 13 minutes. Even though Henin is beat up, she has to be considered the favorite to reach the final on her side.

Poor Dinara Safina just can't seem to catch a break. After a stressful 2009 that saw her collapse in two Slam finals, the former No. 1 re-injured her bad back and was forced to retire against fellow Russian Maria Kirilenko, who upset Maria Sharapova in the first round and reached her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

“It's really, really terrible,” is how Safina described the experience.

Kirilenko will play China's Zheng Jie, a former Wimbledon who overcame Alona Bondarenko 7-6 (5), 6-4.


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