Former World No. 1 – and current No. 3 Rafael Nadal has already broken a number of records through the 2017 season. He has now extended his records at the Monte Carlo Masters (10), the Barcelona Open (10), the Madrid Masters (five) and was set to win an eighth at the Italian Open before a surprising semi-final loss to Dominic Thiem.
But despite that loss, Nadal is still the most successful player in the history of the French Open with a whopping nine singles titles here – and here’s why we could well expect number 10 and it’s time for La Decima again:
There’s not a player on court today that has Rafa Nadal’s form on clay – or perhaps in general, barring of course his biggest rival, Roger Federer. The 14-time Grand Slam winning Spaniard went without a single loss on clay this year until a blockbuster semi-final against ‘Future of Clay’ Dominic Thiem, who beat him in straight sets. Before that, however, Nadal won record-extending titles at the Monte Carlo Masters, the Barcelona Open and the Madrid Open, each of those venues where he already held the record for highest number of titles.
It is not that Nadal’s form has been restricted to clay alone. Putting up a fierce contest againt Roger Federer during the hard-court season, Nadal reached – and fought two finals against the Swiss, in addition to a semi-final – one at the Major level, and the other two at Masters levels. That rivalry for the ages has been resurrected, and in large part due to both players being in brilliant form.
Following his 6-month hiatus from tennis after the 2016 French Open (which he was forced to sit out), Nadal has returned with a vengeance – and a stamina and shot-making that would even put his younger self to rest. At 30, Nadal has been running across court, making shots and serving like the Nadal fans knew in the mid-2000s – unshakeable.
That form has also meant that he has put to rest rivals young, old and anywhere in between – and even in his loss to Dominic Thiem, did not really play a bad game.
Despite that loss, Nadal’s clearly the man to beat at Roland Garros.
Transforming in various parts of his career from lean to buff and everything in between, Rafael Nadal was always a fit athlete. But he was also perhaps one of the most prone to picking up injuries, some of them very chronic – in his knee and foot.
Rafael Nadal has taken the equivalent of over two years off due to various injuries, some related to stress by gameplay, some not. His left foot injury is due to a birth defect, and bothered him repeatedly despite treatment, and through Grand Slam wins.
Struggles with his knee also became chronic, and those struggles and increasing losses took a toll on the ace, who perhaps at this point was in constant pain. Following his break, however, Rafa, who is said to have increased his already extensive work with a physiotherapy team, has come back and how.
With no hint of injury this year for Rafa, that break appears to have done him a world of good. The Spanish ace has been running across the court with gusto, into the net and out, and being both aggressive and defensive baseliner with aplomb. He’s made some gutsy shots consistently through the last few months, rushing the net and away, without appearing to break a sweat and with no drop in energy.
In fact, many are saying Nadal is fitter than he has ever been, even in his heyday a decade ago – and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong.
Nadal is perhaps the greatest clay court player tennis has seen so far, or will see for a long time coming. That said, this year, following his return from an extended break, Nadal has been brilliant on every surface going. He opened his hard-court season with strong wins before his now-iconic Australian Open final against Roger Federer, and then followed it up with a semi-final against the Swiss in Indian Wells and yet another final in Miami – against Federer each time.
To say that he has only dominated clay so far would be misleading – Nadal has had a singularly high level of gameplay whether it has been on hard courts or clay, so his prowess is not to do entirely with his mastery of the clay court.
That regular play and consistency were a mark of Nadal’s earliest days, and the player has sustained that gameplay deep into tournaments each time.
After years of coaching under his uncle Toni Nadal, with whom Rafa has worked since he was a toddler, the former World No. 1 last year finally heeded calls to mix up his changing squad, and announced he would join forces with former No.1 Carlos Moya.
Carlos Moyà, like Nadal, was a clay court specialist, but more than that, he was someone who was a gritty mental player – again, much like his new protege. Moya always did his homework and never shied from a game, and all his games he had one singular trademark- never admitting defeat and never slacking.
These are traits Nadal always had, but somehow, and perhaps under the pressure of the game over the years, he may have lost track of. But after joining forces with Moya, Nadal has had them in droves – and all traits which Nadal shares and believes in whole-heartedly.
Moyà is also an astute strategist as well as a phenomenal human being, values that Nadal has echoed throughout his career so far. For Nadalfinding someone so humble and someone in sync with his own cultural upbringing – a factor that he admits also kept him close to his Uncle Toni, is a bonus – and one that has within a few months already paid its biggest dividends.
It can only go up from here.
Return of Confidence
The Rafael Nadal of 2016 was tired, but not just physically. It would be an understatement to say Rafael Nadal was burnt out, but that is exactly what he was. “I lost my love for the game,” he said to a reporter once, and indeed, his game did reflect it. Early, uncharacteristic losses were not the only thing that indicated this, but often Nadal had simply checked out of a match mentally.
Repeated losses also saw his confidence take a big hit, and Nadal routinely went down to players ranked far lower than himself – a fact that took away Nadal’s confidence and almost ‘gave’ it to his competitors. Any match longer than 4 sets saw Nadal’s interest flag significantly, and perhaps became a sure-shot indicator that the Spaniard would lose.
The biggest – and most effective remedy for his disillusionment with the game was perhaps his extended break. That break likely grounded Nadal and brought him back in touch with what he really loved about the game.
Six months off has appeared to rejuvenate Nadal and brought back the unbreakable confidence that made him invincible in his heyday. Now, barring one single – and out-of-the-ordinary loss, Nadal has exhibited a singular confidence that makes him the top contender for a tenth French Open title!