It may not be an official ATP event, but the Mubadala World Tennis Championship is an informal welcome back to tennis, and this year, it also appears to signal the full return of Rafael Nadal.
The world No. 5, coming off a rough season until a revival in the fall, claimed the exhibition title by winning the final 7-6 (2), 6-3 over Milos Raonic.
The six-man field issues byes for the top two seeds (in this case, Nadal and Stan Wawrinka), and through the use of consolation matches, insures each player gets at least two appearances. Light on star power, as Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were absent following long, arduous 2015 campaigns (Murray’s wife Kim is also not far away from the birth of the couple’s first child), Nadal held the torch for the Big Four, who between them have claimed every title at the event (Nadal/Djokovic 3, Murray 2).
The score was fairly close but Nadal was in control all match and never in danger of dropping serve. Raonic saved a couple break points in the first set, but Nadal jumped to a 4-0 lead in the tiebreaker and kept chipping away at the Canadian’s massive service game until it cracked in the second set, getting a single break, which was all he needed.
It was a solid performance from Raonic, though his his new look (he traded in his trademark sleeve for a headband) and seemingly-leaner figure did not translate to success in rallies or on return, and that is what continues to prevent him from truly breaking through. After an injury-plagued 2015, Raonic saw one of his coaches, former player Ivan Ljubicic, switch to Roger Federer’s camp. In response, he added former world #1 Carlos Moya, though new coaching relationships tend to take some time to click.
Nadal bounced back fresh after a long, physical affair with fellow Spaniard David Ferrer in the semifinals, a worthy sequel to their fantastic match at November’s World Tour Finals, also a three set win for Rafa. Ferrer ended up claiming third by narrowly defeating Wawrinka in the third place consolation match.
Despite the lack of ranking points for the title, this serves as another confidence boost for Nadal. He is getting more depth on his forehand and serving more consistently. Just as important, he has clearly made court position a point of focus, controlling the baseline more and not allowing himself to settle for defending from the back of the court. As he heads off to Doha with the first major of the year looming, he leaves with confirmation that his hard work is paying off.