Two days before Wimbledon began this season, Rafael Nadal labored around Court 14 at the All England Club. He wasn’t moving with the kind of peerless and punishing pace that had led him to 11 Grand Slam titles. Something was a little off; he was taking awkward swings at the ball and looked visibly cranky while conferring with coach Uncle Toni Nadal in between points against his practice partner, Kevin Anderson.
As it turned out, something was terribly wrong. On the opening day, Nadal crashed out of Wimbledon early once again -- but this time it came without much of a spirited fight. His opponent was Steve Darcis, a player who had spent a good part of his career slogging through the minor leagues. It was the second time in as many years Nadal had been ambushed by a relative unknown at Wimbledon.
Nadal was unsure and off balance, and he committed uncharacteristic errors from the outset of the match, one that ended in straight sets. Afterward, Nadal refused to admit his ailing knee was a factor, but clearly it was, with him often favoring one leg in between points. It was an outcome that had anyone with a discerning eye fear for his future, especially for a guy coming off a debilitating injury.
Nadal wasn’t far removed from a seven-month layoff to mend his knee, but he had been playing remarkably well since coming back in February. And the truth is that, after a successful defense at the French Open, there was little indication we were going to see an upset of this magnitude.
Now, 105 days after what very well could be considered his career nadir, things have changed for Rafael Nadal -- just ever so slightly. With an injury-shortened win over Tomas Berdych (the Czech retired down 4-2 in the first set with an ailing back) in the China Open semifinals, Nadal recaptured the top ranking for the first time since July 3, 2011, supplanting Novak Djokovic, who had held the honor for 101 weeks. Yes, Rafa is once again sitting comfortably in tennis’ penthouse as the No. 1 player in the world. By all accounts, this is an amazing accomplishment, even for Nadal, who already owns one of the richest résumés in the history of the game.
"[This is] a great year, one of the best years of my career without any doubt," Nadal said after the match. "[It] sure is special be back to the top position of the rankings after more than a half year without playing tennis."
Nadal made his comeback a few weeks after the Australian Open by playing in three relatively dingy tournaments, as far as he was concerned anyway. All three were played in South America in the comfort of clay, a smart choice, considering his pedigree on dirt and the extra cushion that surface allows. Nadal won two and reached the final of the other before taking the pilgrimage north to Indian Wells, a Masters 1000 tournament played on hard courts. There, he overpowered Roger Federer, Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro in the final three rounds to capture the title.
After a near clean sweep of the clay season, including his eighth title at Roland Garros, Nadal entered Wimbledon playing with the kind of edge that had lifted him to titles there in 2008 and 2010. But then Darcis happened, and there was pretty good reason to think we could be in for a replay of 2012, when Nadal never touched a racket again for the rest of the year after falling to Lukas Rosol in the second round at those same hallowed grounds.
But what transpired thereafter was remarkable. Nadal ran the tables in the U.S. hard-court series, picking up titles at Montreal, Cincinnati and then, the most unlikely of them all, the US Open. He became the first player since Andy Roddick a decade earlier to pull off this trifecta, an arduous one, to say the least, when you consider the level of competition playing in those three events.
Nadal went 17-0 this summer, largely by making the conservative and necessary decision to play more aggressively. He moved closer to the baseline and took more forceful rips on his return of serve, a risky adjustment, but one that pushed him to the best hard-court run of his career. Maybe Rafa just needs to play out of his comfort zone, something Uncle Toni has been stressing for some time.
Before the US Open began, Nadal said that there were a lot of zeros on his résumé and that his goal was just to be healthy. Looks as if he wasn’t exactly aiming for the moon on that endeavor.
Nadal’s return to the summit is quite astounding when you stop and think about it: He did not play the Australian Open in January and failed to win a match at Wimbledon, which means he won only half the maximum allotted Grand Slam matches (and points) this season, yet he still was dominant enough to reclaim the No. 1 ranking.
Fittingly, Nadal will play Djokovic in the final of the China Open on Sunday. A win would give Nadal 11 titles this season, seven (yes, seven!) more than anyone else on tour. This would also tie his career best for most trophies in a season (2005). The reality is that, because Nadal has so few points to defend for the next five or so months, anything he wins from here on out is gravy, meaning his chances of surrendering the top ranking are unlikely for the foreseeable future.
It hasn’t always been pretty for Nadal since he suffered a career-threatening injury last season. As a matter of fact, there have been some downright ugly moments. But perhaps those startling recoveries are what represent the true beauty of Nadal.