Flashback to 2009, a swashbuckling Swede dethroned the King of Clay from his holy grail with his big serve and flat ground-strokes. The world number 1 had to surrender his crown and even miss the Championships as the defending champion. Fast forward to 2012, the legs of the champion, seemingly, had run their share of miles. Along came Wimbledon, which tested the Spaniard’s mettle against an unheralded Croatian ranked at 100 in the second round. Bigger serves, shorter points, and flatter ground strokes. The result was strikingly similar to 2009 French Open, albeit two rounds earlier.
Unmistakably as we may have it, this was just a prologue to what has been deemed as one of the best comebacks not just in tennis history but all of sports that has ever been witnessed. The Matador came back in the arena with all his rage and fury and took the bull by its horns. Results were for everybody to see. Such was the force with which Nadal had taken the tour by his storm that he finished both his comeback years of 2010 and 2013 atop the ATP rankings.
Inarguably, the last 2 years have been the toughest of Nadal’s career and he has always been more than vocal about his share of hardships so much that it was almost agonizing to see his fortunes change. Plagued by injuries and even worse, by plummeting confidence, he saw almost no success on the tour. For majority of 2015, we only saw flashes of brilliance and exuberance that reminded us of the Nadal we all have known, but it just wasn’t enough. More often than not, he would just get by. Most of the favorable results were the matches that he hadn’t lost, not the ones he won. The ball was, more often than not, in the opponent’s court.
History has a habit of repeating itself. From 2010 to 2013 and now possibly 2016, the year that has just gone by could prove just enough for Rafa to launch a genuine attack to reclaim his lost glory. And evidently so, he has started to look more like himself especially in the realms of the surface he has always considered his own.
Over the last two tournaments that Nadal has competed in, he has saved an impressive 69% of the break points (54 of 78) that he faced on his serve, to which he has his reliable body serve to thank. Also, he has been successful to convert 47% of the break point opportunities (51 of 108) he had. This statistic is telling in more ways than one. It underlines that Nadal has saved more break points than he has won, which directly points to his game-plan of being defensive from the baseline to wear-down his opponents as the match progresses. Also, as someone ranked outside the top 4, he has had to beat some quality opposition on his way to the back-to-back titles.
In the principality, Nadal tamed the Stanimal, StanislasWawrinka in the quarterfinals with a straight sets victory. He avenged his defeat of last year in Madrid after beating Andy Murray in 3 highly competitive sets. For the final, he wore-down the surprisingly consistent Frenchman, Gael Monfils, who has had quarterfinal showings in all major tourneys this year, to bagel him in the last set of the tournament. In the land of the Catalans, Nadal defeated the double-defending champion Kei Nishikori to stamp his authority on the red dirt. That’s two out of two in the European clay circuit for Nadal.
Madrid, historically, isn’t Nadal’s most successful clay court tournament and the faster court conditions don’t align well to his play. It would be critical for Nadal more than anyone else as he chases the 4th seeded ranking for his quest of the 10th French Open, with only 545 points separating Nadal and Wawrinka. He also has Rome Masters to look forward to, where he isn’t defending much points.
He is also yet to cross paths with Novak Djokovic or a fit Roger Federer, who can throw in an interesting mix when Nadal is at the top of his game. Monte Carlo and Barcelona, are everything to go by to suggest that the flame may just be too hot for anybody to handle but it is certain that the phoenix is rising from its ashes.