Rafael Nadal has won almost everywhere he's played this year, but from this point on, he'll be playing at a time he almost never wins.
In the course of his memorable career, the Spaniard has successively conquered clay, grass, hard courts -- and clay again a few times over. But indoor success has been elusive, and the post-US Open stretch is the one time of year when he has yet to have a major impact. The latest attempt to change all of that begins this week in Beijing, with a potential return to No. 1 to get things started.
His forgettable fall results are a stark contrast to the rest of his impressive résumé. Nadal has won each major at least once but never captured the World Tour Finals, going 9-10 at the year-ending event. He has won a record 26 Masters tournaments, but none at Shanghai or the Paris Indoors, the two Masters events currently held in the fall.
Of his 60 career singles titles, only one has been on indoor hard courts -- the Madrid Masters in 2005, when he was a teenager. (Shanghai since has taken its place on the calendar.) And the only other time Nadal won a tournament after the US Open was 2010, when he took the title at Tokyo.
Why such a discrepancy? The faster, controlled conditions at indoor events tend to favor bigger, flatter hitters, not Nadal's high-bouncing, protracted style of play. At Flushing Meadows, he suggested he might fare better if the Tour Finals, held in London, changed surfaces year to year, the way it did in the early 2000s, when it was held at a different location each season.
"I feel that I am very unlucky, that all the Masters Cup that I played was [on] indoor hard. Is a tougher surface for me to play well," Nadal said. "Because at the end, you qualify for the last tournament of the season when the best eight players are playing -- indoor hard, outdoor hard, playing on grass, playing on clay, so why the last tournament of the season should be every, every year on indoor hard?
"Even if I understand that you play in a city [because of the weather, the tournament] in that moment have to be indoor, why we cannot play every year in a different surface?"
Still, surfaces are only part of the story. Nadal has been able to adapt perfectly well over the years to the fast, low-bouncing conditions on grass, and the Asian events are held outdoors. At least part of the issue can be attributed to the time of year. After his usual domination of the clay season and increasingly constant success during the grass and hard-court swings, he is often spent by the fall. Despite qualifying for the World Tour Finals the past eight years (this year will be the ninth), Nadal did not play in 2005, 2008 and 2012 because of injuries, and he was suspected of playing hurt when he went 0-3 in round-robin play in 2009 and suffered a 6-0, 6-3 loss to Roger Federer while going 1-2 in 2011.
His most respectable showing at this time of year came arguably in 2010, his most dominant season, when he took the title in Tokyo and reached the final of the World Tour Finals.
So, in the midst of another dominant season, can Nadal finally make his mark in the fall? There are a number of factors in his favor. First, he began his season in February, after seven months off with a left knee injury, and received an unexpected seven-week break when he lost in the first round of Wimbledon. That could mean he has more left in the tank than in years past. Nadal has spoken repeatedly about how fresh and eager he has been since his comeback. The more aggressive style of play he has displayed recently on hard courts may also translate well indoors.
But there also are reasons for caution. Nadal has not played a long season, but he has played an intense one -- 10 titles in 12 finals between February and September, including wins in Montreal, Cincinnati, the US Open, and the Davis Cup on clay in the past two months alone. And there is no let-up planned; he is signed up to play Beijing, the Shanghai Masters, Basel, the Paris Masters and then the World Tour Finals.
This demanding schedule raises the always-nagging question about his knees. He clearly has not been unduly hampered by them this year, but the problem remains in the background. "[A] lot of days it still bother me, my knee. That doesn't mean it affects my game," Nadal told a group of reporters after capturing the US Open title. "I say it all the time, I can have pain, but most important thing for me is to play with no limitation. I am able to play free.
"I am able to do every movement fully."
But as in the past, that can change quickly. And the only tournament this year where he has lost before the final was on a faster surface, on grass at Wimbledon.
However Nadal performs the rest of the year, there is one achievement he is likely to come away with -- the No. 1 ranking. He remains No. 2 in the ATP rankings but leads Novak Djokovic by about 3,000 points in the calendar-year race. With only about 4,000 to 4,500 maximum points available until the end of the season, Djokovic would need to win almost everything, and Nadal would need to lose early almost every week for the Serb to continue staying ahead. The switch could happen as early as this week. Djokovic will remain No. 1 only if he does not capture the title in Beijing and Nadal does not reach the final.
Should Nadal forge ahead by the end of the season, as expected, it will mark the third time -- after 2008 and 2010 -- that he has ended the year as No. 1.
"It is not done, so I have to be humble, but it's true I have a good opportunity," he said, which is about as much as he ever talks up his chances.
There's one thing Nadal has already done, however, and that's satisfy himself with his comeback.
"After winning at Roland Garros, everything was done for me," he said. "I felt that the season is great. Anything can happen for the rest for the season but the season is great for me."
Following up with the hard-court triple crown, capped by the US Open, was simply overwhelming, as his emotional reaction after defeating Djokovic in the final showed.
"And win against Novak again, win final of the US Open, have the chance to win three tournaments in a row on hard [court] -- is normal that I was crying," he said. "Is a result after tough work, after long moments, so that makes the victories more emotional, and because I have people in the box that were decisive during this tough period."
After a season like this, Nadal might seem to have little to achieve by winning the Asian and European indoor events. But for someone who has tamed nearly every territory in tennis, there is one incentive: It's something he's never done.