Commentary

Nadal may have something up his sleeve

Rafael Nadal's aura palpably dwindled at the conclusion of last season. The world No.1 knows that if he can't shake the rust, it will be another lost opportunity in Australia.

Updated: January 17, 2009, 9:57 PM ET
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Rafael NadalPaul Crock/AFP/Getty ImagesHe has a new look, but Rafael Nadal hopes to regain his old form for the Australian Open.

MELBOURNE -- The bulging biceps are holstered in a short-sleeved, collared shirt and the capri-length piratas have receded to a conventional length.

The message is clear: Rafael Nadal, the boy wonder, is no longer. Taking his place is Rafael Nadal, the established No. 1 of men's tennis and the reigning French, Wimbledon and Olympic champion.

It has taken some time for the uniform to fit. Nike handed Nadal the first batch of short-sleeved shirts just before the U.S. Open last year, but trial runs found that the right sleeve became streaked with sweat marks as the grip of Nadal's racket repeatedly brushed that spot after his windmill forehands.

Now, with that problem solved by making the shirts from a different fabric, the 22-year-old will unveil his new, more conventional look at a Grand Slam for the first time when he plays in Melbourne next week. He has already worn the new outfit at an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi and at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open in Doha earlier this month, piquing fans used to his avant-garde sleeveless look.

But can clothes remake the man? Despite last year's stellar summer, some of Nadal's aura has faded after his weary loss to Andy Murray in the U.S. Open semifinals; then, a knee injury kept him out of the Masters Cup and the Davis Cup final.

As a player who performs best with a lot of matches under his belt, the Spaniard always faces a tricky task in the first major of the year, forcing him to try to peak just a couple of weeks into the new season. His recent layoff means that challenge is magnified this time around, says his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal.

"Normally Rafael is very good when he has begun to win matches and get more and more rhythm," the man who has come to be known as "Uncle Toni" said in an interview with ESPN.com. "Here it is a little too early for us to play very good, no? And this year maybe more because last two months with a small injury he cannot play, and so beginning to play better [right away] is difficult."

Nadal, who lost in the semifinals of Doha to Gael Monfils, has taken part in only three ATP singles matches in the past three months, though he did also win the doubles title in Doha and take part in a couple of exhibition matches at Abu Dhabi.

Feeling that the rust is not completely gone, Toni is being typically circumspect when it comes to his nephew's prospects of lifting the trophy. "He has some possibility to win, but always is very difficult because there are many good players."

Discussing his Australian Open chances in Doha, Nadal struck a similar note. "It's important to pass the first two rounds first, and then I hope I can feel my way into the tournament," he said. "If not, I'll just fly home and continue to practice."

But others have less modest expectations. Federer, Murray and Novak Djokovic's racket struggles have commanded most of the pre-tournament buzz, but Federer says that if he wasn't playing himself, Nadal would be his favorite for the title.

"I would always pick Rafael," said Federer at the AAMI Classic in Kooyong this week. "He had an incredible season last year. I think he won the Olympics [on hard courts] pretty comfortably, crushed almost everybody on the way, and I thought he was playing well. And at the U.S. Open as well."

"Let's not forget he didn't play the Masters, so he couldn't really show there."

No player has known Nadal longer than French Open champ and fellow Mallorcan Carlos Moya, who first met him when Nadal was just a preteen. Moya has no doubt that his own feat of reaching the 1997 Australian Open final will one day be matched or bettered by the younger Spaniard.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Lucas Dawson/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has played just three matches in the past three months.
"I think he really has the level to win in Australia. Five sets, very hot, very humid, so conditions are good for him," said Moya, also pointing out that Nadal has improved his results Down Under every year that he has played there -- the third round in his debut in 2004, the fourth round in 2005, the quarterfinals in 2007 and the semifinals last year, where he ran into Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in unstoppable form.

"When he will have the chance he will take it, I am sure about that," Moya continued. "He is a great champion, his mentality is unbelievable. I don't know Borg or these guys, I didn't play with them, but what I think is that what he has in his mind, he gets it."

The legendary Bjorn Borg is often invoked in comparisons with Nadal -- indomitable mental strength, an inexhaustible physical style of play, unparalleled supremacy on clay and eventual success on grass. Last year, Nadal became the first player to win the French Open and Wimbledon two weeks apart since Borg did it in 1980.

But they also share one glaring gap in their résumés -- a hard-court major. Borg played in Australia only once and was frustrated in all his attempts to win the U.S. Open before announcing his surprise retirement at the age of 26.

Still, there is plenty to suggest that Nadal can avoid that fate. His four consecutive French Opens have established him as a clay-court master, but he has managed to capture big hard-court events throughout his career, winning the Montreal and Madrid Masters in 2005, Indian Wells in 2007, and the Toronto Masters and the Olympics in 2008.

Toni believes that they have found the right formula for playing on faster surfaces -- staying closer to the baseline, flattening out the forehand a little more, and taking the ball earlier and out in front. Tinkering has become limited and the focus is largely on execution. "The only question is to be in top form, nothing else," he said.

That burden of performance falls squarely on Nadal's now-sleeved shoulders. While Toni unquestionably remains the head coach, he is giving his nephew increasingly more freedom to run his own life.

An evolution in his role was inevitable as the years go by, Toni observes. "With my son, I changed," he said. "A son of 2, 3, 5 years -- you have a [certain type of] relationship. When the son is 15, it's different."

"Rafael was with me when he was 3 years old. And the kind of relationship is different is than before. Now he is an old man!" he added, laughing. "Before I was so much [more] strict. Now no more."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.