World number one Rafael Nadal will attempt to dethrone Novak Djokovic and put a new wave of celebrity coaches to the test when he returns to the Australian Open next week.
The rampant Spaniard, who missed last year’s edition during a seven-month injury break, will take aim at Djokovic’s three-year reign at Melbourne Park, the longest of the Open era, and try to avenge his epic, six-hour loss to the Serb in the 2012 final.
He also arrives as the only “Big Four” player without a star coach, after Djokovic and Roger Federer, aping Andy Murray’s move in hiring Ivan Lendl, hooked up with Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg respectively.
Nadal, still coached by his uncle, Toni Nadal, underwent a new but undisclosed form of treatment on his injury-prone knees in the off-season, and he appears confident he can stay healthy in 2014.
“I feel that this (treatment) really makes me feel more comfortable,” he said in Doha, where he started his season by winning the Qatar Open. “Because I don’t have pain like I had, no?”
In Nadal’s absence last year, Djokovic showed similar powers of endurance when he ground down Murray in a physical four-setter to clinch his third straight Melbourne title.
After losing the Wimbledon and US Open finals and ceding the top ranking to Nadal in September, Djokovic sent out a message by ending the year with a big win over the Spaniard to take the World Tour Finals in London.
Despite this strong finish, Djokovic sprang a surprise by hiring Becker, the German great with little experience of coaching, in a move thought to be aimed at adding more adventure to his game.
He is not the only one, with 17-time Grand Slam champion Federer acquiring the services of childhood hero Edberg as he seeks to extend his stay at the top of men’s tennis.
The timing of the year’s first Grand Slam, just days into the new season, also makes it unpredictable, with players not always into their rhythm and match fitness.
“It’s difficult because the Australian Open is very early. It would be better to play it a bit later,” admitted Nadal.
“It can be only the second tournament (of the year) that you are competing in, and it’s one of the most important, so it’s a bit strange.”
Japan’s Kei Nishikori has followed the celebrity trend by hiring Michael Chang, while Richard Gasquet has enlisted two-time French Open winner Sergi Bruguera.
Del Potro in semis
melbourne: World number five Juan Martin del Potro recovered from losing the second set to beat Radek Stepanek 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 and book a place in the semi-finals of the Sydney International on Thursday.
In the night quarters, Australian Bernard Tomic stayed on track to defend his Sydney title with a 6-4, 6-3 win over Ukraine’s Alexandr Dolgopolov in just over an hour.
Bulgarian qualifier Tsvetana Pironkova reached her first WTA final with a semi-final win over second seed Petra Kvitova at the Sydney International on Thursday. The world number 107 defeated her second top-ten ranked opponent of the week in a 6-4 6-3 victory.