Fourteen months ago, Rafael Nadal appeared to be complete. He won his seventh French Open, tying Bjorn Borg, and his 11th Grand Slam title. But more important, he beat his nemesis, Novak Djokovic, for the third time in five months.
Six months earlier, the two had played the longest, greatest match in Australian Open history, elevating Djokovic to tennis' elite and sinking Nadal into the first major nadir of his career. Rafa's body had broken before, but never had his will so many times against a singular opponent. He had lost seven straight finals to Djokovic, who had beaten him consecutively and convincingly at the 2011 Wimbledon and US Open finals. Djokovic had solved him in a way no one else had, not even Roger Federer. From March 2011 to January 2012, Djokovic had beaten him at majors and masters, on grass, clay and hard courts. Nadal had no answer. He had been surpassed.
Now at Roland Garros, he had beaten Djokovic to deny the Serb his career Grand Slam. Nadal had taken him out weeks earlier in two Masters 1000 finals in Rome and Monte Carlo. The demons had been exorcised. The universe was again in balance, and Nadal, restored, was considered the favorite at Wimbledon.
Then came Lukas Rosol.
Seven months later, in February 2013, a ring of white tape under his left knee, Nadal 2.0 rose again, tore apart the South American clay swing and won a hard-court Masters 1000 at Indian Wells before devouring the European clay. He denied Djokovic the career Slam at Roland Garros again and won his 12th Slam at the French Open and seventh title in six months.
Then came Steve Darcis at Wimbledon.
Now, in another comeback, Nadal 3.0 has arrived, this time more stirring and dangerous and exhilarating, far from the clay and with terrifying purpose. The strip of tape under the left knee is gone. He approaches another Grand Slam, this time the US Open, as a favorite again, slightly more so than Djokovic and defending champion Andy Murray, whom he curiously has yet to face this year.
For all of his gifts and achievements, there is, oddly, a certain pejorative attitude that surrounds Nadal's prodigious clay achievements. Even the term "the King of Clay" could be considered something of a sly criticism -- and is sometimes meant to be. It is a knock whose roots stem from the fiercely partisan arena that is the Nadal versus Federer camps, the Federer constituency's epic putdown to the question of how their man can be the greatest ever but can't beat his greatest rival. Federer has played 31 matches against Nadal and has lost 21 times.
It is true that while Nadal has two Wimbledon titles, a full two-thirds of his majors have come on clay, as have 42 of his 59 career titles (71.1 percent), exposing him to the charge that he is a one-surface wonder, while seven of Federer's 17 majors (just 41 percent) have come on grass, his best surface. (How 83 percent, or five of Djokovic's six majors, or 75.6 percent of his career titles, have come on hard courts escapes conversation is a story for another day.)
Nadal is scarily aware of his status and said after his losses to Rosol and Darcis that grass will be a difficult surface for him going forward because of the strain the low-bouncing game puts on his knees. But in his latest return, Rafa is playing this hard-court season with some serious aplomb.
Nadal is playing as though he has an eye on history; that the talk is real and it matters and that he has something to prove on the hard court. After losing to Darcis, a narrative began to take hold as Nadal made his Wimbledon exit, that history will treat him unkindly if he doesn't win at least a few more Grand Slam titles on surfaces other than clay.
His response has been devastating. Nadal is 15-0 on hard courts this season. He has confronted the legends, beating Djokovic in a classic Montreal semifinal and Federer in Indian Wells and Cincinnati. And he disposed of climbers with the nuclear serves, beating Jerzy Janowicz in Montreal and Milos Raonic in the final, then John Isner in the Cincinnati final.
For his career, Nadal is 21-10 against Federer, 21-15 against Djokovic, 13-5 against Murray and has a winning record against every player in the top 100 he has faced at least three times except Nikolay Davydenko (5-6).
In winning at Montreal and Cincinnati, Nadal won consecutive hard-court tournaments for the first time in his career. He is now No. 2 in the world and without any ranking points to defend for the rest of the year, while Djokovic must defend 1,200 points at the US Open for making the final last year. That means Nadal could regain the world No. 1 ranking before the first day of fall.
In the course of beating him seven straight matches, Djokovic exposed weaknesses in Nadal's game. Nadal worked far too hard for his points, receiving few free points on serve. His topspin groundstrokes, especially his backhand, were not penetrating deeply enough into the court, landing at or near the service line, where an aggressive Djokovic would step inside the baseline and control points. Where Nadal could exploit Federer's one-handed backhand, Djokovic's two-handed backhand was the dominant shot in the Rafa-Djokovic matches.
In 2011, Nadal's last full hard-court season, he made four hard-court finals but lost to Djokovic at Miami, Indian Wells and the US Open and to Murray at Tokyo. During that year, Nadal's first-serve percentage was 65 percent and he was winning 71 percent of his first-serve points. He was holding his serve at 82 percent and was breaking opponents 32 percent of the time. In 39 hard-court matches, he had hit 145 aces against 77 double faults.
A year earlier, when Nadal beat Djokovic and won his only US Open, he was a more aggressive offensive player, hitting serves at 130 miles per hour. That year, Nadal's first-serve percentage was 64 percent but he was winning 76 percent of his first serve points and was holding at 89 percent and breaking serve 40 percent of the time. In just two more matches played than in 2011, he'd hit 59 more aces (204) with the same number of double faults, 59 more free points.
In 2013, Nadal has reverted back to his 2010 hard-court form, using the serve to control the match. In 15 hard-court matches, Nadal is serving at 69 percent on his first serve, winning 75 percent of those points and winning a career-best 91 percent of his service games, which is John Isner territory. He's breaking serve at his 2010 rate as well (39 percent). He's hitting with far more angle and depth, especially his trademark inside-out forehand.
It has been three years since Nadal has won a Slam outside of Paris, and his latest hard-court revival may be his most interesting yet, for it comes at a period of transition in the men's game. Federer is ranked seventh, his lowest in a decade. Djokovic is still the top-ranked player in the world, but the air of invincibility has faded ever slightly. Since his draining victory over Nadal in Melbourne that had its effects on both men, Djokovic has been to three of the past six Grand Slam finals but has won once.
The defending champion Murray, meanwhile, has been to the final of the past four majors he has played (he skipped the French Open with a back injury), plus the Olympics, but he and Nadal have not met since Murray won his first last year at Flushing.
Over the past 16 months, the tennis narrative had been shifting from Federer-Nadal to Djokovic-Murray as the dominant rivalry in the game. But Nadal, in his own inimitable style, through another comeback, has punctured those thoughts.