Stop us when you've heard this before—Rafael Nadal is heading to a clay-court final.
The superstar Spaniard dispatched of wild-card entry Pablo Andujar 6-0, 6-4 in their semifinal matchup at the 2013 Madrid Open on Saturday, foraging his way to the tournament's final match in typical Nadal fashion.
Playing mostly away from the net, Nadal sprayed a brilliant display of groundstrokes against the overwhelmed Andujar. He won 88 percent of his serves in the first set, got a critical break in the second after Andujar rallied and dominated his way through the straight-set victory as the fans roared with excitement.
The match took all of one hour and 17 minutes—barely more than an episode of Mad Men. Tennis TV's Twitter feed captured Nadal's moment of triumph:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
Rafa Nadal: that winning feeling http://t.co/TsKd2krKfb5/11/2013, 3:07:30 PM
It was far different from the three-set slog Nadal battled through against David Ferrer in the quarterfinals, and Nadal will come into his final with Stanislas Wawrinka as a favorite. Wawrinka defeated Tomas Berdych during their semifinal matchup on Saturday.
The result of Sunday's match is ultimately irrelevant. This tournament has broken wide open with the upset losses by Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, leaving Ferrer as Nadal's only true pound-for-pound test. It would be a massive upset if Nadal lost to Wawrinka, but there would be less than zero takeaways barring injury.
Instead, the Madrid Open represents just another piece of continued excellence from Nadal since returning from injury. He's reached the final in all seven tournaments he's entered, capturing four titles this calendar year—more than any other player.
And with the French Open in the offing, this statistic from Spanish tennis journalist Alvaro Rama feels particularly salient:
Nadal has reached the final in every single red clay event (19) he has played in since Roland Garros 2009. Respect.— Álvaro Rama(@alvarorama) May 11, 2013
Arguably the greatest clay-court player in tennis history, Nadal is already an even-money favorite to win at Roland Garros, per Bovada. That's despite tour officials deciding to objectively rank the French Open field via the world rankings rather than handing Nadal the top seed due to his excellence in Paris. Barring something unforeseen, Nadal will likely be the No. 5 seed, putting his tournament fate wholly in the hands of the draw.
There were many who wondered whether Nadal would ever see his name on a major-championship draw again period—let alone reclaim his status among the world's best.
It was an understandable concern. Still just 26 years old (he'll turn 27 in June), Nadal has faced a never-ending string of injuries—particularly to his knees. Since first hurting his knee during the Wimbledon final in 2007, Nadal has missed time in every season except one (2011) due to one ailment or another. Even arguably the best year of his career, 2008, finished with time on the shelf due to injury.
And of course, the coup de grace came last season. Diagnosed with tendonitis in his knees, Nadal pulled out of the Olympics in July and vanished from the public eye. Other than a releasing a few statements when he withdrew from tournaments, Nadal became something of an enigma, an almost solely insular human being.
It was almost like he was gone for good. Djokovic and the ageless Federer battled for the world's top ranking, Murray finally got over his major championship hump and Nadal was simply licking his wounds.
Yet here Nadal is again. While he's currently ranked fifth in the world, there isn't a pundit on the planet who would subjectively rank him in that spot. The only person playing even remotely at Nadal's level as we near the French Open is Djokovic—the man Nadal vanquished at Roland Garros a year ago.
Of course, no matter how great Nadal is on clay, he doesn't want to see Djokovic until the last possible second. The world's top-ranked player took down Nadal in the final at Monte Carlo and seems like he's finally starting to master the clay surface. He'll be on a mission to finally finish his career Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
Then again, maybe folks should just be happy to see Nadal in Paris whatsoever, no matter whose side of the bracket he winds up on.
Nadal isn't a player who has befallen bad injury luck. He's the very definition of an injury-prone, and his recurring ailment is the type that has ended many careers. And Nadal's career doesn't even have to end for it to be affected by injury. Plenty of former stars hung on well beyond their prime years after a critical ailment left them rudderless.
Federer has had the type of longevity that everyone on Tour aspires to. He's also a massive outlier whose trajectory cannot be followed—especially not by someone with Nadal's history.
So perhaps this is only a short-term return. Perhaps we're so busy rooting for Nadal to stay healthy that we—both the media and fans—cannot see that impending doom awaits.
So what? For now, let's just continue enjoying the ride and see where it takes us.
Something tells me it might involve another Coupe des Mousquetaires along the way.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: Follow @tylerconway22
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