Next week, for the first time in more than seven years, Rafa is playing tennis in Hamburg. Back in 2008 it was an ATP Masters Tournament but it was one of the casualties of the revamp of 2009. Back then it was played as part of the European clay season leading up to Roland Garros but it was downgraded to an ATP 500 and moved to sit between Wimbledon and the US hard court season. As a consequence, Rafa dropped the tournament from his standard calendar. This year, however, a number of circumstances have caused him to return.
A lot of things have changed for Rafa in the last seven years. He's added a ridiculous amount of tournament wins to his tally including slams on grass and hard courts - two at Wimbledon, two at the US Open and one in Australia - and six more Roland Garros titles. He's cut his hair, ditched the piratas and added sleeves.
For nostalgia's sake, here's a look back at his last appearance.
My memory isn't good enough to recall any detail whatsoever so I went back to our vamos brigade tournament news archive to give it a bit of a nudge.
I had totally forgotten that he'd lost in the first round in Rome because of a blister. Neil Harman reported in the times that - "The extent to which Rafael Nadal, the three-times champion here [Rome], was in terrible pain from a blistered foot was confirmed yesterday. A syringe was required to draw blood from the affected area, such a painful experience that Nadal was moved to bite hard on a towel to stop himself from screaming in agony. He was back on the golf course yesterday – in a buggy – so things are looking up and the Spaniard intends to play the German Open in Hamburg next week."
Plenty of members went into mother hen mode and hoped he would pull out of Hamburg. He didn't, of course, though there were plenty of rumours that he would.
He kicked off by beating Potito Starace, then ranked 47 in the world, 6-4, 7-6(6). It wasn't an easy match. Here is a translation by PAT of a long lost article on the Italian Eurosport site.
"The best performance since some time by Potito Starace who made the best player on clay suffer. In the second round of the Atp Masters Series in Hamburg the player from Campania lost in two tight sets after missing golden opportunities to win at least a set against Rafael Nadal.
"In the first set Starace broke his opponent for an early 3-1 but then he lost the successive 7 games (to 1) which led Rafael Nadal to lead 6-4 / 2-0 in the second set. The match seemed to be over but Potito broke Rafa back and led the second set to the tie-break. Before the tie-break, on 5-4 Nadal to serve 15-30 Starace mishit a forehand which could have given him two set points.
"The tie-break was gripping. Potito had a set point at 6-5 but he double faulted and on the successive rally he missed another easy forehand. Then it was Nadal who got his chance and volleyed the match out winning the tie-break 8-6.
In the round of 16 he played Andy Murray who was then ranked 14. It was the third time they had played each other. Although it was Murray's 21st birthday, Rafa wasn't about to give him any presents and for the third time Rafa was victorious, winning 6-3, 6-2.
I love Rafa's succinct comment on the match in his press conference -
"It's always tough matches with Andy. Especially when he's playing well on hard court. If I am playing well on clay then I have more chances to beat him than if I play him on hard. Anyway, he is a very talented player. He can play, go to the net, play from the baseline, he can do everything. He had some mistakes. So, I beat him."
In the quarter finals he beat his fellow Mallorcan, Carlos Moya, 6-1, 6-3. It was the last time they ever played each other.
In the semi finals he had to face Novak Djokovic. A lot was riding on the outcome of this match since the winner would be number two in the world. Before the match Rafa said, "He's the best of the season. He's the No. 1 in the Race. He's playing well. So, I think no favourites because he won last week in Rome. I'm fine. I will try my best. It will be a tough match because he is playing with very good confidence. I have to play my best tennis." Djokovic had won their last meeting but this time Rafa prevailed, 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 and retained his ranking.
It is interesting to see that, according to Ed McGrogan, writing for Tennis World, it was Rafa's serve that saved the match.
"Djokovic and Nadal aren't separated by much, and the closeness of the match was fitting. After a back and forth battle, Nadal led 5-2 in the third set and served for the match. This is when Nadal showed why he's nearly unbeatable on clay. His most effective weapon in this game - in which Nadal faced multiple break points and needed five match points to win - was not his speed, spin, or savvy, but his serve. This often-maligned part of Nadal's game directly saved at least three break points, and steadied a teetering ship. Obviously, Nadal's other assets were on display, but it was the serve that won the day."
And that just left Roger Federer who, at that time, was number one in the world and had won five of their previous eight meetings, including the final in Hamburg the year before. However, Rafa had beaten him in their last meeting just a few weeks before in the Monte Carlo final.
This is a summary of the match from the Telegraph.
"Rafael Nadal captured his first Hamburg Masters title with an epic 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-3 win over world No 1 Roger Federer.
"Nadal showed signs of his semi-final exertions against Novak Djokovic as he fell 5-1 down in the first set. But the world No 2 reversed the double break to claim the set, before Federer took the second on a tie-break.
"Nadal then claimed an early break in the third and never looked back. Some fine touches at the net and a forehand winner gave the Spaniard three match points and he served out the match at the first attempt with an angled backhand."
(It must have set him up nicely since he also won their next three meetings which just happened to be the finals of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Australian Open.)
So we had a trophy bite to celebrate.
It's, arguably, a weaker field this year, though in his opening match Rafa has to get past Fernando Verdasco who has beaten him in their last two meetings.
We are hoping for a repeat of 2008, though. Another trophy bite would be lovely.
Buena Suerte, Rafa.