It hasn't been easy and it’s taken some time, but Rafael Nadal has risen beyond his injured leg and is poised to claim the throne as the "King of Tennis."
Fittingly, the completion of that accession is poised to take place exactly where his kingdom was built—the red clay of Roland Garros.
After outlasting top-seeded Novak Djokovic in a classic five-set battle Friday, Nadal needs only a victory in Sunday’s finals of the 2013 French Open to be the best in the game right now and even without that win is undoubtedly in the conversation as one of the greatest ever.
Nadal overcame a blown opportunity in the fourth set and an early break of serve in the fifth to top the mighty Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 9-7 to set up an opportunity to win his unrivaled and historic eighth French Open and the 12th Grand Slam title of his already brilliant career.
A victory Sunday against fourth-seeded David Ferrer would cap Nadal’s trying but already impressive comeback from a leg injury that took him out of the game for seven months following a surprising second-round loss at the 2012 Wimbledon Championships. Just as importantly, a victory on his beloved red clay on Sunday would make Rafa the only men’s player to win a single Grand Slam event eight times over.
Friday's incredible win was the fifth time he has beaten top-ranked Djokovic in the French Open and it improves his all-time mark against the Serbian to 20-15. It was also a strong statement that it's Nadal, and not Djokovic, who is poised to hold the mantle as the sport's top player. Eleven months ago, that thought wouldn't necessarily have been considered reasonable.
But while the torn patella tendon cost Nadal an opportunity to compete in the 2012 Olympics and U.S. Open as well as the 2013 Australian Open, it gave the world’s fourth-ranked player a much-needed break from the sport that he competes so hard in, and he has returned as dominant as ever.
Since his return in February, Nadal has been absolutely ruthless. The gritty Spaniard is 40-2 since the comeback started, has now won 21 consecutive matches and is on the verge of a stunning seventh tournament title in less than five months.
Prior to Friday’s classic against Djokovic, the 2013 Australian Open champion, Nadal's signature victory of his return came last month in a 6-1, 6-3 drubbing over rival Roger Federer in the finals of the Italian Open. That performance left the legendary Federer acknowledging what has been so evident since his February return.
"He [Nadal] is playing well, I'm very happy for him, super-consistent," Federer said following his Italian Open loss (via The Telegraph). “It goes to show that is what other players should do [take time out of the game to get fit], then come back 100 percent."
One hundred percent is exactly what Nadal has been in his quest to win his fourth consecutive French Open title. Before his match with Djokovic, Rafa had dropped only two sets at Roland Garros. On Friday, Nadal took it up a notch against the Serbian, who many felt was the favorite to win his first-ever French Open title.
For Nadal, who has won at least one Grand Slam title every year since 2005, it was more business as usual against the world’s best players. The victory improved Nadal to 17-3 in Grand Slam semifinals and gives him a 20th victory in the past 21 matches against a top-10 player.
Now there are those that will argue that Nadal’s comeback has largely been played on clay—his best surface by far—and that once the 2013 season turns to the grass surface next week and then the much-longer hard courts season following Wimbledon, his momentum might be halted.
They would be be forgetting, however, that prior to his injury Nadal had claimed Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010, the U.S. Open in 2010 and the Australian Open in 2009. Point is, while Nadal is absolutely an assassin on clay, he's the best in the game when healthy because his style translates to all surfaces.
When compared directly against Federer and Djokovic, Nadal's superiority is further evident. Yes, at the moment Federer owns more Slams than Nadal, but Rafa is 20-10 against Roger during his career. Likewise, Nadal has more Grand Slam victories than Djokovic in addition to his previously mentioned head-to-head superiority.
There is still one more significant step on the journey back for Nadal, which takes place Sunday in his finals showdown with Ferrer. That said, his current form, his confidence and his dominance all point to the fact that his long road back is nearing its ultimate conclusion.
Not just back to another championship at Roland Garros, but back to his rightful place as tennis' most dominant player in the here and now. How history judges his career reign in the sport is left to be written, but there's no doubt that the king is returning before our very eyes in the 2013 French Open.