No one’s more surprised that he still has a shot at No. 1 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in 2022 than Rafael Nadal himself.
At the tennis-advanced age of 36, the Spaniard hasn’t played a competitive match in nearly a month and a half, an abdominal tear having forced him out of Wimbledon after a five-set quarter-final escape against American Taylor Fritz. Yet here he is, age-defiant, back in Cincinnati for the first time in half a decade, a 36-time ATP Masters 1000 champion who’s apparently still hungry for more.
Nadal could usurp the top-ranked Daniil Medvedev should he win the title this week, and Medvedev fail to reach the quarter-finals, returning to No. 1 for the first time since January 2020. It’s a battle that will also decide the top seed at the upcoming US Open.
“It means a lot to me to have that opportunity, something that I never expected could happen again. But here we are,” said Nadal, the No. 2 seed at the Western & Southern Open. “The main thing is to stay healthy and finish the season playing the events that I want to play. I will not play more than what I believe will work well for my body to achieve this goal, but I am going to put all my efforts into every single event that I play.
“I do that all the time — it doesn’t matter whether I have the chance to be No. 1 or not. But I’m happy to be in this privileged position. If for some reason that happens, it will be amazing.”
The 2013 champion will open against another player fighting his way back into the mix after injury setbacks: 152nd-ranked Borna Coric of Croatia, the former World No. 12 who last year underwent right shoulder surgery. Their ATP Head2Head history stands at an even 2-2, with Coric having claimed a straight-sets, 6-1, 6-3 decision in the fourth round of this same event back in 2016.
“One year ago, I didn’t know if I would ever have a chance to come back to Cincinnati,” said Nadal. “Here I am. I’m excited for that.”
The Mallorcan, who until his Wimbledon setback had been on track for the ever-elusive calendar-year Grand Slam, having triumphed at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, says it’s important for him to temper his expectations this week. After all, abdominal tears can be tricky: Every time you reach up for a serve, for an overhead, you’re risking pain, or worse yet, re-injury.
“You need to know that when you come back after a while things aren’t going to be better. You can’t expect to play at an amazing level from the beginning,” he explained. “Knowing that, accepting that, you have to be able to be humble enough to fight with the tools that you have at the beginning to win the first match. In the Masters 1000s, the opponents are very demanding from the beginning.”
The former poster boy Coric, 25, has been limited to just 13 tour-level matches in 2022 (5-8). Below that, his best run came on the ATP Challenger Tour, where reached the final in Montechiarugolo-Parma, Italy in June.
The Day 3 docket also features an intriguing Battle of Britain clash between two-time champion Andy Murray (2008, 2011) and countryman Cameron Norrie. The Davis Cup teammates have only faced each other on one occasion, back in 2019, with Murray claiming a 7-6(6), 6-7(4), 6-1 victory in the Round of 16.
It will mark Murray’s 38th match of 2022, the most he’s played in a season tracing all the way back to 2016.
“It’s not been easy these last few years to stay fit and healthy, and play enough tennis to get matches to learn from and to build confidence and to get my body physically robust enough to compete week in, week out,” said Murray, No. 47 in the Pepper stone ATP Rankings. “That’s a positive thing that I got to play lots of matches, or more matches this year. Hopefully, I can continue that through the end of the season.”
The 11th-ranked Norrie is seeking his third title of the year, having prevailed in Delray Beach and Lyon. When Murray joined the 700-wins club earlier this year in Indian Wells, Norrie observed: “It’s incredible given everything he’s been through, all the setbacks that he’s had, and he’s still waking up every day and going for it, leaving it all on the table.
“That stands out more — his attitude, his love and passion for the game. For me, it’s more impressive than all those wins. That speaks for itself, all the titles, all those wins, getting to No. 1, finishing No. 1 for the year. That’s sick. He’s a legend of the game. But what’s more outstanding is that attitude that he has and brings on a day-to-day basis.”
Several rising Americans will also be in action at the Linder Family Tennis Center on Wednesday. The BNP Paribas Open champ Fritz will face the streaking Aussie Nick Kyrgios for the first time; Frances Tiafoe will put his perfect 3-0 ATP Head2Head against compatriot Sebastian Korda on the line; and scuffling Canadian Denis Shapovalov will do his best to right his ship (he’s dropped nine of his past 10 matches) against World No. 31 Tommy Paul, who got the best of him earlier this summer in the second round at the Queen’s Club, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4. Paul also took their title clash last year in Stockholm by the same score.