Nadal dispels doubts in shades of Federer's 2017 campaign

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MELBOURNE, Jan 26 (Reuters) - If there were any lingering doubts remaining over Rafa Nadal's fitness and preparations for the Australian Open, the 35-year-old Spaniard dispelled them during his win over fellow left-hander Denis Shapovalov.

Only two wins separate Nadal and a men's record 21st Grand Slam title but not many would have bet on him to clinch a second title at Melbourne Park when he arrived in Australia at the start of the month.

After all, Nadal was starting the season after having missed a chunk of the 2021 tour due to a lingering foot injury that forced him to skip Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open among other events and raised doubts if he would ever come back to the court.

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If the injury issue was not enough, Nadal also contracted COVID-19 last month and said he suffered terribly during the first four days and could barely move.

Despite the challenging build-up Nadal is now unbeaten in nine matches, including his title run in a Melbourne tune-up. On Tuesday he outlasted an opponent 13 years younger than him in a five-set battle of four hours and eight minutes.

Nadal said he was "destroyed" and he welcomed the extra day's break before he meets Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini of Italy in the last-four stage on Friday.

His team confirmed to Reuters that the Spaniard was severely dehydrated and lost almost four kilograms.

"I don't think Rafa really knows how well prepared he is," said seven-times major winner and Eurosport tennis expert Mats Wilander.

"He comes to Australia, wins the first tournament, he doesn't really know how he is going to play best-of-five sets, doesn't really know how he is going to feel physically.

"But the one thing he has – he knows that whatever is in his bag, he is going to use not just every tactical tool, but emotionally be invested in every single decision."

Another Australian Open title for Nadal would not only break the three-way tie at the top of men's tennis but also make him just the second man after Novak Djokovic to win each of the four Grand Slams twice since the sport became professional in 1968.

American John McEnroe, a former world number one who won seven major titles, sees shades of Roger Federer -- when the Swiss great returned from a six-month injury lay-off to win the 2017 Australian Open -- in Nadal's campaign.

"Just when you think Rafa has got nothing left he pulls something out of his bag of tricks," McEnroe said on Eurosport, adding that Nadal came to Australia early to get match practice and get used to the heat. "Rafa looks pretty good in my book.

"It is amazing that he could do what Roger Federer did. Roger was gone for six months five years ago -- he did not play, he was injured.

"Rafa said he did not think he could reach this far, he was not playing as well as the other players. I don't believe that for a second."

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Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Christian Radnedge

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