The final revival of Rafael Nadal?

After winning gold at the Rio Olympics, the Spaniard now enters a crucial month in his comeback and his career.

Ali Khaled August 28, 2016

“If somebody says I am better than Roger, I think this person doesn't know anything about tennis.”

Rafa Nadal uttered those words in 2013 as he was about to embark on a 33-week residency at the top of the world ATP rankings. Humility has always been a defining feature of one of the greatest players tennis has ever seen. 

Sadly, so are injuries. Right knee, left knee, back, and the latest, a wrist tendon problem that forced him out of the French Open in May just as he was beginning to find his rhythm. At times it seems anything that can go wrong, will go wrong for the popular Spaniard. 

In Paris an almost tearful Nadal said, “This is a tough moment, the toughest press conference I have ever had to give. Nine times in my career I have been able to be healthy here in Paris and win the tournament.” He later thanked his fans on his Facebook page and added: “Today is one of the toughest days.”

This season has seen the 14-time Grand Slam winner surprise many with his resurgence. The famed down to earth attitude and work ethic remain intact. But this is a different Nadal. There seems renewed resolve in the man dubbed the “King of Clay”.

On April 24, he became the joint all-time record holder for clay court titles after he beat Japan's Kei Nishikori in the final of the Barcelona Open, equalling Guillermo Vilas' long-standing record of 49 titles. Just a week before Nadal had won the Monte-Carlo Masters on clay. No player since the days of Vilas and Bjorn Borg has dominated the red courts like Nadal. A tenth French Open in June suddenly seemed possible, his destiny perhaps. But it was not to be.

Now, with an Olympic gold in the bag, Nadal focuses on the US Open. If he could triumph at the tournament, it would arguably go down as the biggest mid-career reversal of fortune since a seemingly washed-up Andre Agassi came back from injury and a ranking of 140 in 1997 to reclaim the world number one spot.

Nadal’s comeback would not compare to Agassi’s in terms of rankings scaled. The Spaniard’s lowest position came last year as he dropped to number 10, and he is now ranked fifth. He hasn’t sat on top of the rankings since June 2014 when he won a ninth French Open. But he won just four tournaments in 2014 and only three in 2015.

A third US Open title would bestow legendary status on Nadal’s latest comeback, considering the strength of the quartet above him in the rankings: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rodger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

Court battle

Yet in the middle of this run of form, dark clouds have followed Nadal, as he prepares to do battle in a different type of court. 

For years Nadal has faced what he insists are baseless accusations of doping. His record of injuries and subsequent returns has raised eyebrows in some quarters. Many suspect the sheer number of setbacks and their accumulative strain on his body should have rendered Nadal lame even at the age of 29.

The day after lifting the trophy in Barcelona in April, Nadal filed a lawsuit against former French sports minister Roselyne Bachelot for alleging he had taken time off from the ATP Tour in 2012 to hide his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

“We know that Nadal’s famous seven-month injury was without a doubt due to a positive [test],” Bachelot said. “When you see a tennis player who stops playing for long months, it is because he has tested positive and because they are covering it up. It is not something that always happens, but, yes, it happens more than you think.”

The astonishing comment was the final straw for Nadal who said he is now prepared to go to any length to disprove the accusations and to stop similar ones from being made in the future.

On the same day his lawyers submitted the lawsuit against Bachelot, Nadal wrote a letter to the president of the International Tennis Federation, David Haggerty, in which he called for the results of all drug tests he has undergone to be made public. 

After years of keeping his counsel, Nadal has come out swinging. "It can't be free anymore in our tennis world to speak and to accuse without evidence," he wrote. "Please make all my information public. Please make public my biological passport, my complete history of anti-doping controls and tests."

In the wake of Maria Sharapova’s stunning admission in March that she took performance-enhancing drugs, tennis is under scrutiny like never before. Nadal, rightly, will have concerns that in the current climate of suspicion, the mud might just stick this time.

He said of Sharapova’s situation, “I want to believe that it is a mistake for Maria, that she didn’t want to do it, but it is a negligence so the rules are like this. It’s fair, so now she must pay for it.”

He also took the opportunity to reiterate that he has never unlawfully aided any of his comebacks from the injuries that have plagued his career.

“I really don’t know anything about the doping and I am a completely clean guy,” he said. “I worked so much during my whole career and when I get injured, I get injured. I never take anything to get back quicker. I believe in the sport and in the values of the sport.”

Road to recovery

Nadal’s physique is still remarkable but he is no longer the new kid on the block that could out-power, out-sweat and out-last any player on the tour. His incredible Wimbledon final win over Rodger Federer – generally regarded as the greatest match ever played – is now eight years ago. 

Since that glorious day in 2008, the year he also won Olympic gold in Beijing, Nadal has won only three Grand Slams outside of Paris. In what should have been the prime of his career, injuries have prevented him from a sustained run as world number one, and perhaps amassing a record number of Grand Slams.

Some tennis observers believed the clay courts of Paris this year could kickstart Rafa’s return. A truly breathtaking record is worth repeating: since 2005, he has won nine titles in Paris, losing only twice in 2009 and then in 2015 when he lost to Djokovic in the quarter-final. The Serb said of Nadal then, “At the end of the day, he's human and it's normal to have seasons like this.”

Four-time Grand Slam winner Jim Courier said watching Rafa on clay was “jaw-dropping”, adding in 2011, “I'm so impressed with what he's able to do mentally and physically. Borg was always this god on this surface; no one believed that they could beat him. For Rafa to be as dominant as Borg is unfathomable, and we're just lucky to see it. I have a hard time imagining how you beat this guy on this surface."

Yet Nadal does not deserve to be pigeon-holed as just a clay court specialist. Over the years he has developed his game to excel on other, faster, harder surfaces like few others. 

“Some people get very confused about my game,” he said. “They think it's better if the court is slow, because I have a good defence. But the faster it is, the better for me. My spin is more painful for my opponents, my aggressive game works better.”

A win in New York might be the sweetest of all, and vindication after a period of doubt and frustration, especially after the wrist injury that struck so cruelly in Paris. A major trophy would boost Nadal’s confidence immeasurably as he enters the final third of his career, a period when he may choose to manage his schedule and his body more wisely.

Nadal is well-placed to criticise the punishing tour schedule. With more events on hard courts, injuries have become a fact of life for tennis pros.

“Hard courts are very negative for the body,” he said during his lay-off in 2012. “I know the sport is a business and creating these courts is easier than clay or grass, but I am 100 per cent sure it is wrong.” 

It could be that he must now reduce his workload, especially on those dreaded hard surfaces. Federer has in recent years insisted that rankings matter less as you grow older. It’s all about the major prizes.

Perhaps the new, maturing Nadal cares less for the once coveted number one spot and more about the big titles. At the US Open starting tomorrow, he could yet write another chapter in a glorious career.