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Monday, January 17, 2011
Rafa's Round 1 shutout a good thing?

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Trying to become the first man in 42 years to win four majors in a row, Rafael Nadal entered the Australian Open under a cloud. He got sick early in the year, picking up something from his trainer, and was duly crushed in the semifinals of the Qatar Open.

For those wondering, the reason the world No. 1 subsequently contested -- and won -- the doubles final with Marc Lopez apparently was that they won in Qatar in 2009 prior to Nadal capturing the season's first major.

Nadal is indeed superstitious, as the aligned bottles suggest. He'll surely note that at the Australian Open, as in two years ago, even though he was ranked No. 1, the bottom half of the draw commenced, not usually the case at Grand Slams. No, Nadal didn't ask to begin Tuesday, tournament director Craig Tiley said. There were other considerations.

Those illnesses can be tricky business. Andy Murray was under the weather for a spell in 2010 and dipped, while Roger Federer, afflicted with a more serious condition, mono, suffered an unexpected defeat to Novak Djokovic here in 2008.

Sure enough, the trainer was out for Nadal's first-round match in Melbourne. Late in the second set, the affair was over after a mere 47 minutes.

Oh, don't worry, Rafa fans, it was his opponent, Marcos Daniel of Brazil, who had to call it quits with a knee problem. When Nadal said in an on-court interview after his 6-0, 5-0 win that he knew the feeling, he wasn't fibbing.

So it's one down, six to go to join Rod Laver.

The kind of guy Rafa is, he wouldn't have wanted a retirement. However, there's no doubting it benefits the 24-year-old. Perhaps it was even the perfect start.

Nadal, heading into the tournament, admitted he still wasn't practicing at 100 percent. He delayed his arrival in Melbourne, choosing instead to rest in Doha. Had he drawn, let's say, either Juan Martin del Potro or Lleyton Hewitt, trouble might have resulted. Del Potro, on the mend from a wrist injury, won't win the tournament, although he can scare anyone in a single match.

Nadal won't get much trouble in the second round, either, facing clay-court specialist Daniel Gimeno-Traver or U.S. qualifier Ryan Sweeting. Traver, a journeyman, takes an extended swing on the forehand, similar to Daniel and not suited for hard courts. So the gods chipped in there.

They also helped with the weather. Colder than normal temperatures -- about 68 degrees, with a fair wind -- wouldn't have done much to sap Nadal's energy in the past few days. If only eastern Australia, still being ravaged by floods, could get some relief.

Summer in Melbourne can bring sweltering conditions, and when things get steamier, as expected, in the next week, it probably will benefit Nadal, assuming his body recuperates.

Balls will come to life, bringing more sting to Nadal's heavily spun groundstrokes. The hard courts of the Australian Open already suit him better than slicker ones at the U.S. Open.

"I think it would then be more difficult for someone to attack him," said Bob Brett, one of the most respected coaches around. "How early can his opponents take the ball to take time away from him? That's the key."

Nadal wasn't about to make any grand observations about his game after being on the court for less than an hour. He pointed out, though, that his serve, which helped him so much in New York as he completed the career Grand Slam, needed a bit of attention. He spent half an hour on the practice court hitting serves after the match.

"I don't know where is my best level and how far I'm away from that," Nadal said. "I can't say if I am playing at my best or not. I think I am in the right way."

ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert concurred.

"No concerns for me," he said. "The greatest thing I like about him is that he keeps it simple. He just focuses on the next point, game and match."

No superstition involved there.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.