Men's Tennis: Can Rafael Nadal Ever Return to Prominence on Hard Courts?
In late 2010, Rafael Nadal defeated Frenchman Gael Monfils in the final of the Rakuten Japan Open in Tokyo, 6-1 7-5. This victory was the final tournament win of 2010 win for Nadal, which was the Spaniard's career year.
In 2010, Nadal won seven titles, including three Grand Slams and two on hard courts. However, two-and-a-half years later, Rafa's ranking has tumbled to World No. 5, his lowest since 2005. Much of this decline can be attributed to a nagging knee injury that hit Nadal last summer and a stomach virus that kept him out of last month's Australian Open.
At the start of his career, Nadal could seemingly only win on clay. Now, he isn't the quintessential "dirt rat" because he won a pair of Wimbledon titles and made deep runs at the other majors, but each of his first four major titles were at the French Open, played on Rafa's beloved red dirt.
In 2010, Rafa, who by that time already had captured Wimbledon (grass) and the Australian Open (hard), showed the rest of the world that he was the best player on earth. Period. Regardless of surface.
In his majestical run that ended in the completion of his career Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows, Nadal served consistently at 125 mph. That's a very stark contrast to 2006, where his average serve speed at Wimbledon was a measly 104 mph.
This improvement made Nadal a more complete player, and people began talking about the Spaniard toppling Roger Federer's record of 16 majors (Federer has since added one more major to his outstanding total).
Fast-forward one year and an inability to finish off points hampers Nadal in a demoralizing four-set loss to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final. By that time, Djokovic had already overtaken Nadal as the best player on earth and had defeated Rafa on every surface, clay included.
Go forward 12 more months, and Nadal is absent at the U.S. Open, the world of tennis is already talking about a new "Big Three" and Rafa is left out, as questions about his future have arisen. A few months later, Djokovic, Federer and Andy Murray have established a clear pecking order atop the rankings. There's Djokovic, then Federer and Murray, then everybody else—including Nadal.
After months of speculation, it now seems as if Rafa's long-awaited comeback will take place in Chile, where the Spaniard will attempt to win the Vina del Mar title for the fist time. As we continue down his list of projected tournaments, we see the Brazil Open and the tournament in Acapulco. Of course, all three of these tournaments are played on clay.
Nadal has avoided the "Golden Swing" in South America since 2005, and to play there now seems rather illogical.
Common sense says that Rafa would then fly north and play in Indian Wells and Miami, a couple of hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments. However, coming back from a serious injury, it may seem odd for a player to play for five consecutive weeks.
Since he has yet to confirm that he will play in the North American swing, perhaps, Rafa knows something that the rest of us do not.
Perhaps, Nadal is back to being a one-trick pony. Nadal is such a determined player and such a hard worker that it's hard to imagine that he will not come back strong. Rafa is also the greatest clay-court player in the history of the sport, so it as difficult to not consider Nadal one of the favorites for the dirt events that are coming up, despite his injury history.
However, the hard courts are very hard for Nadal's violent style of play to handle.
He's made his life (and has won 11 Grand Slam titles) by running his opponents to death. On clay, this strategy plays right into his hands, but it is hard to keep it up on the quicker-moving surfaces, where big hitters are typically more successful. Already in 2012, pre-injury, his results outside of the clay courts were not very strong.
I expect them to be even weaker in 2013, as his appearances will be limited to those the Spaniard feels that he must play. Federer, Djokovic and Murray have all had superb hard-court records since Nadal left the scene in July, and other players are eager to prove their worth.
Nadal continues to pile up Roland Garros titles, but instead of feeding his resume as the potential GOAT, the seven French Opens are now feeding the stereotype that Nadal is a one-trick pony. His game is only translates well to clay.
With Nadal apparently still feeling some pain in his knee, big hitters like Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro,and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can definitely defeat Nadal on hard courts.
Keeping up his grind-it-out style will do nothing but hurt Nadal in the long-term—for every point that he runs back and forth, back and forth,
Nadal knows what he can do; recent indications point to Nadal not quite trusting his body on the quicker surfaces. With the stunning depth of talent at the top of tennis, it is very hard to envision Nadal doing much of anything on hard courts.
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