After a disappointing second half of 2016, Rafael Nadal came roaring back to form at the Australian Open. On his way to the final – his first in three years, Nadal brushed away legitimate contenders in the form of Milos Raonic, Alexander Zverev, Grigor Dimitrov and Gael Monfils. In the final, he stood opposite career-rival Roger Federer. At one point, he found himself a break up in the deciding set, firmly in control of his own destiny. After a winding road through injuries and a dip in his game, Nadal had finally broken through and found the level that got him 14 grand slam titles.
The first Grand Slam has set the tone for the rest of the year, with the reinvigorated vigour of Rafa and Federer adding another dynamic to the men’s draw. The biggest impact of that will undoubtedly be felt during the clay-court season all the way to Roland Garros. Rafael Nadal, a nine-time champion, will once again be the favourite to win on the Red Clay. Unlike the last three years that saw the rise of Novak Djokovic and later Andy Murray, it will be the Spaniard who will be the man to beat for the next three months.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) February 14, 2017
Indisputably the greatest clay courter of all time, Nadal will look to carry forward the momentum he built at the Australian Open and make the most of his elevated level of play. The slow surface will suit his game more than the faster hard court of Melbourne, giving him more time to set up his patented forehand and impose his will on his opponents.
At least for the time being, it is hard to bet against the veteran, who seems to have found the motivation and drive that has defined his career so far. With him leading the charge, Murray and Djokovic close behind, it will be very interesting to see how the season shakes up. Roger Federer remains an ever-present threat and the next generation of players is narrowing the gap between them and the elite. It sure is a good time to be a tennis fan.