Nadal Savoring Opportunity In The Desert

© 2017 Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open

The low point came in the back seat of a car on his way back to his Paris hotel, tears filling his eyes. A blue brace on his left wrist, Rafael Nadal was coming from what he called "one of the toughest press conferences in my career." He was originally scheduled to play a third-round match the following afternoon, but the nine-time Roland Garros champion had just pulled out of a tournament closer to his heart than any other.

Though he would return to the match court for the Rio Games in August, the rest of Nadal's year seemed a blur, his season coming to an end with an unceremonious opening-round loss to Serb Viktor Troicki at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Shanghai.

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Of course, it was hardly the first injury ordeal for Nadal, whose punishing game has been taxing his body for years. There was the knee tendinitis that kept him out of the Tennis Masters Cup and Davis Cup final in 2008. He missed the second half of 2012 due to left knee injury, and the beginning of 2013 due to a stomach virus. In 2014, he was sidelined for nearly three months after Wimbledon with a right wrist injury.

This makes his run to the 2017 Australian Open final all the more incredible. The Spaniard defeated Gael Monfils and Milos Raonic en route to his first Grand Slam final in three years, falling to longtime rival Roger Federer in a five-set classic. Despite the loss, Nadal could appreciate the moment.

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"It was great for the promotion of our sport," he said. "It was, for sure, important because there was a lot of anticipation for this match. Personally, to be part of it again was great. For sure I wanted to win, but overall I felt happy to be back in a big match like this — against Roger, too. So it was a moment that we will remember. I think it's something that's going to be part of the history of our sport."

It was the 35th Nadal-Federer encounter, as storied a rivalry as tennis has ever seen (the Spaniard holds a commanding 23-12 advantage in the head-to-head series, which dates back to 2004). And we could be in for a 36th in the fourth round if the seeding hold up at the 2017 BNP Paribas Open. As fate would have it, Nadal landed in the very same quarter of the draw as Federer, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro. That's 45 collective Slams in one quadrant. However, the world No. 6, now 30 year old, is too experienced to get ahead of himself in this grupo de la muerte.

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"It's difficult to imagine," said Nadal, a three-time Indian Wells titlist (2007, 2009, 2013). "Our part of the draw is a little bit dramatic — for everybody. But I'm just thinking about my first match against Guido Pella. That's going to be tough enough than to look further. I need to win two great matches to be in that round, so I won't focus on that."

Nadal followed his Melbourne run by reaching the final in Acapulco, where he came up just short against streaking Californian Sam Querrey.

"I played very well in Australia and in Acapulco, too. I lost a final against someone who played unbelievable, so you just accept that opponents on some days play better than you. But I didn't play badly in the final. It was a great week for me. I'm excited to continue playing well here."