RAFA Nadal starts the final push towards what he hopes will be a return to the top of the world rankings when he gets under way at the China Open today.
The Spaniard has played only one match since winning the US Open earlier this month, a crushing Davis Cup victory, and is re-energised for the final stretch of a season that started under a cloud but has turned into one of his best.
Since returning from a seven-month injury lay-off in February, the 27-year-old has been virtually unstoppable, winning ten titles and compiling a 61-3 record.
Novak Djokovic, whom he beat in the French Open semi-finals and in the US Open final, remains No 1 but with no points to defend between now and the ATP World Tour finals, Nadal looks a strong favourite to climb above the Serb.
It could happen as soon as next Monday if Nadal at least reaches the final in Beijing, even if Djokovic wins the title. “It will be very tough to become No 1,” Nadal told the ATP website, although to all intents and purposes the hard work is already done.
“If I am still playing the same way that I have the past couple of months, I hope to have my chance here or in the next few weeks. I am completing a great season. I’m playing one of the best seasons of my career. That’s why I’m in a good position in the rankings and I had great successes in the important tournaments.”
Djokovic has ended the year as number one for the past two seasons but only a Nadal injury relapse looks likely to allow him to make it a third year in succession.
He said he has no complaints about his imminent drop to second, although he will keep fighting. “With no doubt (Nadal) has had the best results this year,” Djokovic said. “This year, he’s been the best player in the world. I have been having ups and downs throughout this year. But still it was quite a good season for me. But it’s not over.”
Nadal begins as second seed in Beijing against Colombian Santiago Giraldo while Djokovic faces Lukas Rosol.
World No 3 Andy Murray is missing, having undergone back surgery, while former world number one Roger Federer is also absent.
Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka’s China Open title defence wilted in the first round when the Belarussian lost to Germany’s Andrea Petkovic 6-4, 2-6, 6-4 yesterday.
Azarenka’s 15 double faults, to go with 44 unforced errors, mirrored her erratic display over two hours 22 minutes against Petkovic who appeared to be feeling dizzy in the second set. Azarenka’s loss followed her second-round defeat by Venus Williams in Tokyo last week.
Petkovic looked in discomfort in the second set, needing medical time out, and she lost seven straight games as Azarenka forced the decider. The defending champion traded breaks with Petkovic to level at 4-4 in the third set but her 15th double fault on break point left the German serving for the match.