Rafael Nadal's grass court challenge

February 6, 2018

The announcement that Rafael Nadal is to play at the Queen's Club Championships in June will not just excite fans booking corporate hospitality for the tournament itself, but also represents a statement of intent by the Spaniard to fight Roger Federer all the way for the world number one spot.

Having secured his 20th Grand Slam title by retaining the Australian Open last month, Federer is now the first man to have a score of major titles to his name. Indeed, it is hard to think of anything left for him to achieve, bar the Olympic singles gold, a distant prospect with the next games in Tokyo more than two years away. 

If there is one thing Federer can now do, it would be to become the oldest men's world number one at 36. Just 155 ranking points behind Nadal, he may even achieve this before the Spaniard next plays by making the most of a wildcard at the Dubai Open. 

Indeed, even if Federer doesn't play in Dubai or exits early, Nadal could forfeit his position if he failed to reach the semi-finals on his comeback from injury in Acapulco. 

Even if the Swiss superstar does go top, however, Nadal could soon snatch the top spot back, and this is where matters become particularly interesting. With the Masters 1,000 tournaments at Miami and Indian Wells just weeks away and Federer having maximum points to defend, he could swiftly slip off top spot again. Conversely, Nadal is the man with all the points to defend in the subsequent clay court season, which Federer sat out last year.

All this means the situation could be very fluid, and the grass court season could be crucial for both men.

With Queen's now offering 500 points to the champion, victory could be invaluable, and many past winners have gone on to do the grass court double by winning Wimbledon as well. Andy Murray has done it twice in recent years, while Nadal managed it himself in 2008, the one time he has walked away from west London with the huge trophy. 

Nadal managed a second Wimbledon title in 2010, but since then his grass court form has suffered. He lost to Novak Djokovic in the 2011 final, but has not reached the quarter-finals since. 

Sometimes the problem has been obvious, with the exertion involved in the Spaniard's repeated marches across the Roland Garros clay to the French Open title leaving him with too many injuries to compete well. However, even when seemingly fit he has not yet recaptured the form that made him a two-time Wimbledon champion. 

By playing at the Queen's Club and perhaps repeating his 2008 success, Nadal may change all that. Even as he turns 37, Federer could potentially retain the Wimbledon title and with it the ranking points, but Nadal knows a Wimbledon triumph of his own would ensure he remains world number one. 

It could also keep him on course to become the second man to win 20 Grand Slams. 

Image: Michael Dodge/Getty Images from Keith Prowse subscription 

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