If you are a Rafael Nadal fan you’re probably not going to like this post. First, a hearty congratulations to the Spaniard for his remarkable return to No. 1. Last February you could have easily made the case that there was a greater chance he’d be out of the Top 5 before reaching the No. 1 ranking (or even No. 2).
Based on the severity, or what appeared to be severe, knee injury which kept him off the circuit for seven long months, it’s hard to imagine that Nadal would come back with such fury and furor, and perhaps unimaginable freshness.
Nadal ruled on the red brick once again but for most of us his most shocking performances came on the on hardcourts. Riding those ailing knees, Nadal won Indian Wells then improbably swept the summer swing collecting titles in Canada, Cincinnati and of course the US Open, which remains his last tournament trophy.
So how did he do it? After no hardcourt titles for 30 months, where did this sudden surge on cement come from?
Let me start by saying Rafa played some fantastic tennis. To his credit he won the matches he needed to and he beat the guy standing across the net. That simple. He played with more aggression and purpose than he has ever before on the the hardcourts, and it paid off.
(OK, if you are a Nadal fan you might want to stop reading right about here.)
But there’s another factor. Nadal got lucky. Real, real lucky.
Now in all sports/life, etc., there’s always an element of luck at play. That’s a fact. In Nadal’s case, however, this season he was extra fortunate – like the Tennis Gods made up for making him miss half the 2012 season.
And as opportunistic as ever, Nadal took advantage of fabulous draws and his fleeting foes.
First, Novak Djokovic went on a walkabout just about the time Nadal was hitting his stride in March. Where was Novak during Indian Wells or Miami? Floundering, that’s where.
Djokovic was riding high after Australian Open and Dubai wins and rightfully the tour seemed to be his (albeit, Nadal wasn’t around when he won the Australian – lucky Novak?). But upon returning to the US for the two Masters events all wasn’t right. And really, for whatever reason his game never fully bloomed again until post-US Open, after his engagement.
It’s a poor argument I know, but Djokovic just wasn’t the same Djokovic in the middle of the season. Had he been, I think he would have won at least one of the four North American masters stops. But this year he finished with a big fat goose egg and went five full months in the heart of the season without a title.
Yeah, that French loss to Nadal may have dispirited him over the summer but Rafa wasn’t a factor for Novak in March.
Meanwhile, Nadal’s other main rivals Roger Federer and Andy Murray were also having their own non-Rafa issues. Even at his peak Federer struggled against Nadal. Now into his 30s it’s almost a mismatch. The two legends still provide electricity when they clash and engender international headlines, but unless the match is indoors the winner is now virtually a foregone conclusion as Federer continues to age and his game regresses right before out eyes. No longer does Rafa have to worry about Roger as a real threat anymore. Unfortunately, I think those days are done.
Murray, who I would put second on hardcourt ladder behind Djokovic when healthy, is someone who can hurt Nadal. Andy has won four of the last seven times they’ve played on the hard stuff. But the Scot fell on hard times with a back injury which I think really stunted his season following his incredible Wimbledon triumph.
Another guy who has given Nadal a run is JW Tsonga, but a knee injury torpedoed his summer hardcourt hopes.
The big push this year came from Juan Martin Del Potro. The dangerous Delpo led Nadal in the Indian Wells final before coming unglued. Six months later, though, when the big guy was in full stride Delpo got his revenge in Shanghai.
Now if it sounds like I’m taking shots at Nadal, well, you’d be right. He’s the man of the moment, the man on top of the pedestal so he’s an easy target. And I’ve taken “weak era” aim at other top guys before.
I just think Nadal’s summer success on the hardcourts can be summed up like this: Djokovic played like crap, Murray was injured, Tsonga injured, Federer old and he avoided Del Potro. What’s left? Tomas Berdych?
And looking at Rafa’s four big hardcourt titles, here’s what went down:
Indian Wells: Gulbis choked, Federer had a back injury, Rafa played well to beat Berdych but Del Potro should have closed him out in the finals (was up a set with a break). Credit to Nadal for that win, though, great effort in his hardcourt debut.
Canada: Rafa needed a 3rd-set breaker to beat a sub-standard Djokovic, otherwise he benefited from an unbelievable draw which culminated by playing an overwhelmed Raonic in the championship.
Cincinnati; Another great draw getting Isner in final. Rafa did beat Berdych and Federer but overall it wasn’t a terribly impressive result.
US Open: Of his seven matches Rafa only faced two Top 20 players – mental midget Richard Gasquet in the semis and then Djokovic in final. Credit to Rafa for that Novak win, arguably his best of the season but Novak was patchy all event.
In the fall, Nadal’s hardcourt results finally corrected pulling back to normal. Djokovic and Del Potro started to catch fire and those two took over the last month or so of the season, leaving Nadal still trying to find that indoor footing once again.
Nadal did play well in London earlier this month, but again much of that thanks to an incredibly fortuitous grouping – a tired Ferrer, a debutante in Wawrinka and the weak-minded Berdych. That’s borderline stealing.
And even on clay, Djokovic beat Nadal in Monte Carlo and was up a break on the King of Clay in the semis. He’s still the King, but perhaps we are seeing some cracks?
2013 was Nadal’s best season on hardcourts, that’s true. But strange that it wasn’t his best season on clay.
This all said, of course you could make similar arguments for Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro, who also benefited from Murray and Tsonga’s absence, and even Nadal’s – let’s not forget Rafa did miss the Australian Open yet he still finished No. 1!
But am I fully buying into Nadal’s 2013 hardcourt turnaround? I just can’t. I give him credit, he played incredibly well and he was the best, most consistent guy, but to me 2013 was a “down year” in the sport and Rafa took advantage. That’s why, assuming the field (Djokovic, Murray, Del Potro and Tsonga) is back to full strength in 2014 I just don’t see a repeat of his hardcourt success next season nor even a Masters hardcourt title. And eventually even luck runs out.
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