/ 4 January 2012

Tough start to 2012 for Nadal

Spain’s Rafael Nadal had to fight hard not to lose his opening match of 2012, going a break of serve down in the final set before surviving against an opponent ranked outside the top 40 in the Qatar Open on Tuesday.

The French Open champion fought back with typical courage in his 6-3, 6-7 (2/7), 6-3 win over Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber but it was a patchy performance which left an impression that tennis is a bit of a struggle for him at the moment.

Nadal found it hard to achieve rhythm and consistency with his ground strokes, sometimes leaving the ball short, and allowing his intensity to subside surprisingly during a second set spell when he went 1-4 down.

But after dropping serve in the first game of the final set, the world No. 2 began to hit some more solid blows, particularly with inside out forehands taken from the backhand corner, and finished looking much more in charge.

“I didn’t have a chance to practise much, I had problems with my shoulder and knee, and arrived feeling so-so,” Nadal said, referring to an off-season curtailed by the late finish of the 2011 Davis Cup.

“So a victory was very important. The beginning was a bit risky but I came back well and played a bit more aggressive.”

‘More aggressive’
This was not though the Nadal depicted in his new year resolution, one who aims to become more permanently an aggressive player, taking the ball on or inside the baseline at every opportunity.

“When I say I want to be more aggressive, it doesn’t mean that I want to try that every day,” Nadal explained. “It doesn’t mean it will happen in the first match … I need time. But I have decided to play aggressive. This is something which is needed.”

Nadal was probably referring both to his long term physical survival on an increasingly arduous tour, and the extra dimension needed to answer the surge of Novak Djokovic, who took over as world No. 1 last year.

He might have made life easier for himself had he converted the two break points he had at 5-5 in the second set, but Kohlschreiber saved one with a bold volley and another with a pressurising backhand drive.

The world No. 43 from Germany also produced some good variations as he tried to deny the winner of ten Grand Slam titles as much rhythm as possible.

But Nadal, who next plays another German, the qualifier Denis Gremelmayr, believes his shortcomings were just some of the normal difficulties in re-acquainting himself with a tennis match. He later came up with a more positive interpretation.

“I was happy with my level,” he said. “I think it is really positive I am through, and that is very important. I am happy having matches on the court. I didn’t know if I would be here a week and a half ago.”

Later Nadal’s perennial rival Roger Federer had an utterly different start to the year.

The second-seeded defending champion from Switzerland needed less than an hour to get past the former champion, Nikolay Davydenko, by 6-2, 6-2.

Federer admitted he surprised himself with the level of his performance against the Russian opponent who beat both himself and Nadal while winning the 2010 title here.

“I played aggressively, served well, and I had good movement, which is surprising early on in the season,” said Federer.

“But there again every match is new, and I will have to work on my game because every match in the draw is potentially tough.”

He next plays Grega Zemlja, a qualifier from Slovenia who won 4-6, 6-1, 6-1 against Sergei Bubka, a wild card entrant who is the son of the Soviet pole vaulter (of the same name) who was repeatedly voted the world’s best athlete.

Later Gael Monfils, the fourth-seeded Frenchman, joined his compatriot Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the second round when he won 7-5, 6-3 against Rui Machado, the world No. 67 from Portugal.

Monfils, a finalist here six years ago, quickly recovered from the disappointment of failing to close out the first set on his serve at 5-4, combining his familiarly brilliant court coverage with an increased ratio of attacking at the net.

“That is what I want to do to try to improve my game,” said Monfils. — AFP