Tennis: Nadal on Heineken Open radar

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal
Global tennis phenomenon Rafael Nadal is being lined up to play in the Heineken Open in Auckland next month, nine years after he appeared on the backcourts as a virtual unknown.

A lot of stars need to align for it to happen but tournament director Karl Budge is hoping he can help put them in place to lure the 26-year-old here.

Nadal has played in Auckland twice - in 2004 he was a beaten finalist and the following year withdrew from his first-round match because of injury - but a lot has happened since then.

He's won 11 grand slam tournaments among his 50 titles and has banked in excess of US$50 million in prizemoney. He's presently ranked No 4 in the world but has spent considerable time at No 1 and would be the biggest drawcard in the Heineken Open's nearly 60-year history.

Bjorn Borg won in 1974 but before he went on to dominate men's tennis and Marcelo Rios' win in 1998 helped propel him to No 1 in the world later that year. Roger Federer was a first-round casualty in 2000 and the Heineken Open remains the only tournament on the ATP Tour he hasn't won a match at.

Nadal hasn't played since losing in the second round at Wimbledon because of a long-term knee injury and had planned to make his comeback at a lucrative tournament in Abu Dhabi but was forced to withdraw because of illness. It has also put in doubt his chances of playing next week in Doha.

Should he exit early from that tournament or fail to recover, he will need some match practise ahead of the Australian Open and the Heineken Open looms as an option.

He could still opt for Kooyong but doesn't traditionally like playing in exhibition tournaments and might feel more comfortable in Auckland where he would be out of the glare of the world's media and among a host of other Spaniards like world No 5 and three-time defending champion David Ferrer. "It's probably more on the side of hopeful than realistic," Budge said, "but we are certainly putting the feelers out.

"I have spoken with his agent every week for the last 15 weeks. He has been, 'Karl, no', every time I have spoken to him. Now he is saying, 'let's see how he goes over the next week'."

Nadal would need a wildcard to enter the Heineken Open and Budge will leave the place open for as long as possible. He will also see what sort of financial inducement he can put together.

"I think it would help but anything we offer is going to be a pittance compared to what Rafa normally gets. He's a pretty expensive chap but, at this stage, we probably don't have to pay him what we normally would. It's more just a sweetener to try to clinch it because it won't be the deciding factor."

The tournament starts in Auckland on January 7.

- Michael Brown of APNZ