A ussie tennis legend Wally Masur admits he's concerned about 22-time grand slam champion Rafael Nadal ahead of the Spaniard's Australian Open defence. The Spaniard has copped a tricky draw for the year's first major that includes a potential banana skin clash against in-form Brit Jack Draper in the first round.
Nadal has lost six of his past seven matches including both at the recent United Cup, going down to Cameron Norrie and Alex de Minaur. It's the first time in the Spaniard's illustrious career that he has started a season 0-2 and Masur has made the startling admission that he could see Draper knocking out the defending champion in the first round at Melbourne Park.
AUS OPEN 2023 GUIDE: Players, top seeds, prize money and how to watch
AUS OPEN PARTNERS: From Rafa Nadal's wife to Nick Kyrgios' girlfriend
"He'll need to be on song pretty early because Jack Draper is in form and he's an awkward opponent in the first round," Masur said during Channel Nine's coverage of the draw on Thursday. Draper has already fired a warning shot by storming past Karen Khachanov and into the Adelaide International semi-finals, where he faces South Korea's Kwon Soon-woo on Friday.
"It'll be amazing to play on court with him, he's a great champion," Draper said of 22-time grand slam winner Nadal. "I want to play really well and I want to compete hard and do the best I can."
Draper lifted his ranking from 262 to 40 after a breakout year in 2022 and the Adelaide semi-final represents his third last-four appearance across the past six months. In contrast, Nadal has not looked quite the same after suffering an abdominal injury at Wimbledon that forced him to withdraw from his semi-final against Nick Kyrgios.
Nadal did of course claim grand slam victories at the Australian Open and French Open earlier in 2022, but his form dropped off drastically towards the back-end of the season. Masur suggested that Nadal's physical state may dictate that he plays a different style of tennis, and only time will tell whether it's successful or not.
"It was that stomach tear at Wimbledon ... and he never really recovered, he won one match at the US Open for the back end of the year, so it wasn't the Rafa that we're used to," Masur added. "He's struggled at the start of 2023. We caught a little glimpse of him at the United Cup and it's pretty obvious what he's been working on in the off-season.
"He's trying to be a bit more offensive, shortening the points, serve-and-volleying at the net, so it'll be interesting to see how that works out for him."
Nadal - who is striving to join Roger Federer and Ken Rosewall as men's major winners aged 36 or older - has insisted that he's not concerned by his recent struggles. "It's true that the last couple of months I was not able to play much tennis and at the beginning of the season I lost two matches in Sydney," he told reporters in Melbourne.
"I need to win matches for sure. But the preparation is going quite well, practising a lot and I think I am in good shape. Then you need to demonstrate that in the matches, in the official tournaments. But I'm confident that if I am able to have this last week of positive practices, why not?"
Rafa Nadal in tricky half of men's draw
Making Nadal's title defence at Melbourne Park even trickier is a 'brutal' draw that pits the Spaniard in the same half as a number of other men's heavyweights. If Nadal does defeat the in-form Draper first up and progresses to Round 4, he could face his US Open conquerer, Frances Tiafoe.
Nadal could then face Russian ace Daniil Medvedev - who has made the last two finals at Melbourne Park - in the Round of 16. That potential showdown would be a repeat of the 2022 Australian Open decider that the Spaniard won in a five-set thriller. The earliest Nadal could face nine-time champion Novak Djokovic is in this year's final.
The 36-year-old is looking to extend his lead as the man with the most grand slam titles, with Djokovic currently trailing him by one on the all-time list. The Serbian claimed his 21st major title at Wimbledon, while Federer retired. Although speculation continues to swirl around Nadal's future in the game, the Spaniard has been at pains to reassure fans that he has no immediate plans to walk away from the sport.
"For me, I lost my match, that's it," he said. "Every time that I am coming to a press conference it seems that I have to retire. So, you are very, very interested in my retirement. I mean, that's, for the moment, not the case. When this day arrives, I'm gonna let you know guys. Don't keep going with the retirement (questions) because I'm going to keep playing tennis."
Click here to sign up to our newsletter for all the latest and breaking stories from Australia and around the world.