Rafael Nadal aims to follow Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic into the second round of the Australian Open as he takes on little-known Hugo Dellien of Bolivia, who’s breaking new ground for his country, on Tuesday.
Rafael Nadal vs Hugo Dellien is live from Melbourne on Tuesday 21 January at 3pm local/4am GMT
Federer and Djokovic both recorded solid victories on day one of the Australian Open, with Federer cruising past Steve Johnson in straight sets while Djokovic worked harder to get past Jan-Lennard Struff in four; will Nadal keep pace?
The race for the biggest Grand Slam haul is occupying the minds of many pundits at the moment, with Nadal’s 2019 French and US Open victories putting him within one of Federer’s record 20 major titles – meaning that the world no. 1 could tie Federer, and thus overtaken him at the French Open, if he wins the Australian Open this fortnight. But that’s a long way away for Nadal, who has reached four Australian Open finals since triumphing in 2009 but is yet to pick up a second title.
Nadal looked absolutely brilliant at last year’s Australian Open as he rampaged into the final without dropping a set, only to be dismantled by Djokovic. But that was the Spaniard’s first tournament since the previous August. Twelve months on, and Nadal’s recent workload has been much heavier. He played three events after the US Open in 2019, and while it wasn’t too tough at the Paris Masters or the Nitto ATP Finals – making the semifinals of the former before giving a walkover, and failing to get out of his group in London – Nadal played a big role in Spain’s triumph at the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid, winning five singles rubbers and three doubles rubbers.
Barely six weeks later, thanks to tennis’s increasingly farcical scheduling, Nadal was back on court representing Spain at the inaugural ATP Cup, and I think it’s far to say that the strain was showing. Nadal, alongside the excellent Roberto Bautista Agut, did propel Spain to the final, but he suffered a shock defeat to David Goffin of Belgium and had to come back from a set down against Alex de Minaur in the semifinals; in the final, he was beaten 2-6, 6-7(4) by Djokovic. Nadal didn’t seem to be injured as much as low on energy and consequently struggling to make adjustments, and although he has had a week off in preparation for the first major of the year, that’s still not a lot.
Never one to be overly optimistic in his assessments, Nadal was cagy about how he was feeling:
‘I am practicing, I think, more or less okay. Just remain for me two more days of practice. Let’s try to keep going with the right intensity and with the right feelings. Hopefully I will be ready for Tuesday.’
Since winning the title in 2009, Nadal has only once failed to make it to the quarterfinals or better in Melbourne: In 2016, when he was knocked out by compatriot Fernando Verdasco in five sets. With all due respect to his opponent on Tuesday, it would be an almost unprecedented shock if Nadal was to suffer a similar defeat at the hands of Hugo Dellien.
Bolivia’s Dellien, 26 years old, hit a career-high ranking of world no. 72 at the beginning of last week. He actually quit tennis altogether in 2016 before deciding to come back to the sport, and his decision to return has been rewarded by a steady climb up the rankings from a nadir of world no. 791 in 2016 to world no. 240 to end 2017, to world no. 283 at the end of 2018 after winning a trio of Challenger titles.
Dellien continued to climb in 2019, predominantly thanks to good results on the Challenger Tour as he won titles on clay in Santiago and Milan and made the final in Guyaquil, but he also started to get some ATP Tour wins, breaking into the top 100 after reaching the quarterfinals at the 500-level Rio Open as a qualifier with wins over Guido Andreozzi and Roberto Carballes Baena. Dellien also made the quarterfinals of the ATP 250s in Sao Paulo and Geneva, won a match at the French Open before losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round – the first Bolivian player to win a Grand Slam main-draw match since Mario Martinez in 1984 – and qualified for seven ATP Tour events.
The 2020 season did not get off to a good start for Dellien, who got just one game in a lopsided defeat to Michael Mmoh in qualifying for Auckland, and he is clearly far more comfortable on clay than on hard courts.
As if facing the world no. 1 wasn’t intimidating enough for Dellien, he also has to deal with the widespread attention the match is garnering in Bolivia:
‘It’s incredible, it’s as if I’ve won a Grand Slam, but I’m just playing against Nadal. It’s because of what Rafa generates. I don’t know if any Bolivian might have played against a world number one, and on top of that at a Grand Slam. Bolivia is treating it like a football World Cup final.’
This will be Dellien’s fifth match against a player ranked inside the top 10 after facing four such opponents in 2019, and although he has yet to beat a top-10 player, he did take sets from Tsitsipas at the French Open and Daniil Medvedev at the US Open. Facing Nadal will, of course, be a very different story and we should expect a fairly crushing victory from the world no. 1 to open his Australian Open campaign.