Even lifelong supporters of Roger Federer such as myself cannot deny that the return of Rafael Nadal to prominence on the ATP tour is two important things: highly remarkable and nothing short of spectacular.
To recap the journey, the former world number one lost in the second round at Wimbledon in 2012 (a tournament where it is undoubtedly better to get him early; he lost in the first round in 2013), then missed the rest of the season, including the Olympics, where he was the defending gold medalist, the US Open, the end-of-year Tour Finals, and the 2013 Australian Open in January.
The same knee issues that caused him to miss time in 2009 seemed to be back, and Nadal was sidelined for what seemed an eternity. Real concern followed him everywhere, as it was again discussed and speculated that his style of play, the relentless ground game, the cutting spins he puts on the ball, and most of all, the running, had finally worn him down. Then he started playing again. He made a terrific move coming back on his most natural surface, the clay where he is all but untouchable. Despite a somewhat rough start in South America, Nadal ripped off a stupendous stretch in which he claimed six titles and reached eight consecutive finals. He hasn’t looked back, claiming his eighth French Open title and adding this most recent victory at Flushing Meadows to boot.
Nadal’s match against Novak Djokovic was fascinating to watch in its momentum shifts. The first set was all Nadal, the second all Djokovic. Nadal wasn’t playing badly entering the third set, but it looked as if the Serb had recovered the championship form he had in 2011, when he beat Nadal in the final. Djokovic had found consistency in his serve and was routinely using his excellent return game and sterling backhand to put pressure on Nadal and force him to come up with something special in order to hold serve, and that he did.
The match featured several rallies of 15 or more shots, including one spectacular exchange that reached more than 50. Everything that high-quality tennis has to offer was on display that night, and each player demonstrated his tennis IQ repeatedly in the beautiful way that points were constructed, as both players had to think several shots in advance to set up a winner or force an error.
At this year’s French Open, Rafael Nadal cemented again his reputation as the best clay court player in history and returned to form at the US Open in making his case for being the best ever. There are already some who name him as the best ever, and if he claims four more Grand Slam titles, reaching the current milestone of Federer’s 17, it won’t even be a debate anymore. Sure, people will still talk about who was better to watch, and I’ll defend to the death that Federer’s game was more absorbing and beautiful, especially in person. But Nadal will have the head-to-head record over him (not to mention every other notable player of the past decade) and with the numbers to match; nobody will be able to deny it.
Rafa is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, we have ever seen.