Can “Detective” Draper Find A Way To Defeat Nadal?

Jack Draper in action ahead of the Australian Open.

On BBC Radio Five Live’s Australian Open preview show, it was revealed that Jack Draper’s preference for another profession if he had not become a tennis player was to be a detective. Apart from making a refreshing change from being a professional in another sport (the usual choice of most athletes), it also testifies to Draper’s meticulous, even forensic, approach to preparing for tennis matches. But can he find a way to defeat the great Rafael Nadal in the first round of the Australian Open?

At Least He Has A Little More Time To Prepare Now

At least Draper will have a little more time to prepare for his encounter with the 22-time Major-winner in Melbourne. That’s because he suffered a somewhat surprising loss to the lower-ranked Kwon Soon-woo of South Korea in the semifinals at the Adelaide International 2 event, 7-6 (8-6) 6-7 (2-7) 6-3, one of the many warm-up events for the Australian Open that are currently taking place in Australia and New Zealand. (The fact that there have been two alone in Adelaide suggests how many there are.)

However, the 21-year-old Briton has had a generally positive start to 2023, having competed well in both the men’s events in Adelaide in the last fortnight. In particular, he provided further evidence of his ability to learn quickly after he reversed his straight-sets defeat to Karen Khachanov in the Adelaide International 1 event last week by beating the Russian in straight sets earlier this week. Nevertheless, it will still be a significant step up in class when he faces Nadal in Melbourne.

Draper Has Faced One of The Big Two Before

Of course Draper has experience of facing a member of The Big Two (as Nadal and Djokovic must now surely be called after the retirement of Roger Federer) in the first round of a Slam. Just over 18 months ago, he played Novak Djokovic in the opening match of Wimbledon 2021 and literally served notice of his immense potential by taking the first set against the Serb, which was one of only two sets that Djokovic lost throughout the entire tournament (the other one being the first set of the final against Matteo Berrettini).

That match against Djokovic effectively acted as the launch-pad for Draper’s career, as he has experienced an extraordinary rise up the rankings ever since, one that looks likely to continue whatever the outcome of the match against Nadal. He was granted a wild card by Wimbledon in 2021, but he has risen – or rather rocketed, in a manner befitting of his spectacular serve – more than 200 places in the ranking since, such that he is now ranked No.40 in the world going into the 2023 Australian Open.

Draper’s serve is by far his biggest weapon and not only because of its speed. As a left-hander, he is able to add all the rarity value of a “leftie” to that speed to create natural width and drift that can overwhelm even vastly more experienced opponents, such as Khachanov. However, in Nadal he will be facing the greatest “leftie” of all time.

Nadal Is In The Autumn, If Not The Winter, Of His Career

Having said that, Nadal is surely now in the autumn, if not winter, of his career. He has had a stuttering start to the season, having lost both his matches in the United Cup, the season-opening team event, including one to Draper’s fellow Briton, Cameron Norrie. And that follows on from a virtually non-existent second half of the 2022 season. He had looked as if he might even manage a crack at the Calendar Slam when he reached the semifinal at Wimbledon, before he had to retire through injury, and he never fully recovered throughout the rest of 2022.

The worrying thing for Draper and anyone else who might face Nadal in Melbourne is that the Spaniard looked in even worse shape this time last year, when he was not many people’s pick to win the Australian Open even after Djokovic was deported from Australia because of his lack of Covid vaccination. Of course the rest is literally tennis history, as Nadal first fought his way to the final in Melbourne then somehow fought back from two sets down against Daniil Medvedev (the man who had ended Djokovic’s Calendar Slam hopes in New York in 2021) to win the title and claim a record-breaking 21st Major. Consequently, the odds remain very much against Draper achieving an upset next week.

Nadal and Djokovic Are Not Draper’s Main Rivals

The comforting thing for Draper is that the match against Nadal is almost a free hit. Few, if any people, seriously expect him to win, so he can go out swinging and see where it takes him. And even beyond that, his real challenge is not so much against Nadal and Djokovic who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, cannot go on forever. Instead, Draper’s major opponents in 2023 and likely for the next decade are Carlos Alcaraz, the US Open Champion and World No.1, who will sadly miss the Australian Open because of injury, and all the other young male players emerging in his wake, notably Holger Rune, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Jannik Sinner.

It remains to be seen whether Draper can develop the kind of all-court game that those other young players, in particular Alcaraz, possess. Of course that can be the mixed blessing of having a gigantic serve, namely that it can limit the need for a player to improve all the other aspects of his game. However, Draper knows that he must do so if he is to move on from talk of first-round upsets to making deep runs at the Majors.

The BBC’s Australian Open preview show also revealed that Draper’s interest in policing and detective work has already translated into his tennis preparation, with one of the contributors to the show, Laura Robson, saying that he is a tennis nerd who spends hours after matches watching YouTube and other footage, “even from the Eighties”. Doubtless he will be exhibiting similar due diligence before his encounter with Nadal next week and also ahead of future encounters with Alcaraz and all the other young contenders in the years ahead.