Rafael Nadal: One Final Chapter In Historic Year
Subtle, significant changes to Rafael Nadal’s game have enabled the 31-year-old to become the oldest ever year-end No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. As Louisa Thomas of The New Yorker writes, one of the few big titles that Nadal hasn’t won yet during his remarkable tennis life is the title at the Nitto ATP Finals.
There were times when the 2017 season seemed like it could have been a highlights reel taken from Rafael Nadal’s long, unparalleled career. There was Nadal performing his elaborate ritual of tics and tucks, preparing to serve. Nadal, deep in the backcourt, his body torqued and poised, about to uncoil a forehand. Nadal, battling his great rival, Roger Federer, in the final at the Australian Open, in Indian Wells, in Miami, in Shanghai.
Nadal, hair matted with sweat, clothes streaked with clay, eyes creased into a smile, nibbling trophies in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Roland Garros. On the hard courts of the US Open and Beijing, too. Nadal becoming the No.1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings.
It was all so familiar that each image could be taken for granted – just as, a year ago, it was taken for granted that Nadal was in an inevitable and inexorable decline. At the end of 2016, Nadal had seemed a broken man, frequently injured and too often unnerved. His forehand was landing short, rebounding without its usual bite. His serve was weaker, his movement a microsecond slower. He lost matches that, in the past, he would have pulled out, and he barely won matches that, in the past, he would have won in a rout. He missed long stretches with injury.
Of course, he was still one of the best players in the world, still capable of astonishing feats. He could reach ungettable shots and turn them into his own freakish winners. He could grind opponents down and finish them off with a vicious thrust. But the big wins came more rarely and he finished 2016 at No. 9. He seemed to be fading, if not gone.
But Nadal takes nothing for granted. It is the source of his genius – as important to his success as his revolutionary, lefty, hooking forehand, his uncanny anticipation and his impeccable footwork. He begins every service, whether the first of a tournament or the last, with the same pattern of gestures. He hits every ball, whether defending or attacking, with the same level of intensity. He approaches every match with the same focus and determination, whether he is playing against Federer or a random qualifier.
He treats every tournament just the same. After winning the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title at Monte-Carlo for an unprecedented 10th time, he was asked if Roland Garros was the next step. “The next step is not Roland Garros,” he answered. “The next step is Barcelona. That’s the real thing. Today is a good start of the clay-court season, but I never take Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome, Madrid like a preparation for one tournament. These tournaments are so important in themselves.” That is the kind of statement that every player makes but only Nadal seems to truly believe.
He would go on from Monte-Carlo to win his 10th title in Barcelona, his fifth Madrid Open title – the 30th ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title of his career, tying Novak Djokovic for the all-time record – and his 10th Roland Garros title. He seemed to be playing at another level from everyone else, dropping only one match the entire clay-court season, to Dominic Thiem in Rome. (He would go on to avenge that loss, crushing Thiem at Roland Garros.) It was one of the best clay-court seasons that the best clay player of all time had ever had.
And Nadal wasn’t done. By August, during the hard-court season, he had become the No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings for the fourth time in his career – a feat that not so long ago many had thought impossible, given his physical state and the landscape of the game. At the US Open, he stretched his lead in the Emirates ATP Rankings, winning that title with apparent ease, though always insisting on the difficulty of every match. Nothing for granted, from first ball to last.
And in fact, once you get past the similarities between this season and seasons past, you will see that this is, in some significant ways, a changed Nadal. He is 31 years old now, which shows in the creases around the eyes, and perhaps in the occasional bafflement when a shot does not land where it should. His shorts have shortened. The more subtle and significant changes are in his game.
This year, Nadal brought on Carlos Moya, another Spaniard to have held the No. 1 spot, to be a new voice in his camp, sitting alongside his uncle Toni Nadal, who did so much to shape Rafa’s game, and who will bow out at the end of the season. With Moya’s encouragement, Nadal paid more attention to his shotmaking, swinging freely, stepping into the court and taking the ball down the line with more frequency. He dramatically improved his service game, to the point where he could top 120 miles per hour with his first serve and hit his second with more pace and bite. He also showed this year a willingness to adjust even over the course of a match, putting more pressure on in certain moments, playing more defensively when he sensed an opponent’s nerves or weariness.
Perhaps the last major prize for him to win is the Nitto ATP Finals. He has qualified for the year-end tournament 13 straight times, but he has never won it. This could be his best chance, but you will not know it from the total seriousness with which he enters each match.
It has been a long year. Despite his consistently Herculean effort and brutal physical style, which tests not only his stamina but the resiliency of his wrists and knees, Nadal is the only one of his established rivals who made it through the entire 2017 without taking long breaks for rest or to recover from injury. He has been on the ATP World Tour week in and week out, playing with passion.
Part of the pleasure of watching Nadal is that his game, like his spirit, has a kind of generosity. He often elevates his opponents’ games to levels that we, and perhaps they, had never imagined possible. It is his greatness that his own level still rises higher.
The 2017 Nitto ATP Finals will be held at The O2 in London from 12-19 November