Nine tournaments. Nine finals. Seven titles.
It's official. With the French Open trophy back in his bite, Rafael Nadal has completed the greatest comeback in tennis history.
Things started to go wrong for Rafael Nadal about a year ago. After getting upset by Lukas Rosol in the second round of Wimbledon last year, Nadal took time off the tour to deal with injuries to his troubled knee.
He was off the tour for seven months. Seven months, as Roger Federer won Wimbledon and temporarily recaptured the No. 1 ranking. Seven months, as Andy Murray broke through and won the Olympic gold and the U.S. Open. Seven months, as Novak Djokovic cemented his hold on the No. 1 ranking and won the year-end championship and the Australian Open.
Seven months is a long time to sit out when you’re in the prime of your career. That’s a lot of time to think about your humanity.
But seven months didn’t slow Rafael Nadal down one bit.
Since coming back on tour, Nadal has made nine straight finals and won seven titles. Of those titles, three are Masters events and one is the French Open. He has wins over 12 Top-10 players, including two wins over Roger Federer and his epic victory over No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Roland Garros.
One loss came to Horatio Zeballos in the final of his first tournament back in Chile. One could say that he was still shaking off the rust. The second loss was to Djokovic in the final of Monte Carlo.
Nine straight finals is an incredible feat for any player of any health. Nadal has never made nine straight finals at any other point in his career. Djokovic has never made nine straight finals, and Federer has only once made nine straight, and this was during his peak years of 2005-2006.
Nadal did something he’s never done in his illustrious career right after returning from seven months on the couch. That is just unreal.
Tennis has seen phenomenal comebacks before. Andre Agassi went through a low period in his personal and professional life in 1997 and saw his ranking drop down to No. 141 in the world. He came back to win two majors in 1999. However, it took him an entire year of play and five Grand Slams to get back into top form.
On the women’s tour, Serena Williams came back from foot surgery and a pulmonary embolism in 2011. While she had impressive results right away, it took her four Grand Slams to recapture her top form and get back to the top.
Kim Clijsters came back from retirement to immediately win her first Grand Slam back at the 2009 U.S. Open. However, she lost before the finals of the three other events she played that year.
Nothing compares to nine straight finals and seven titles after seven months off. Nothing.
Part of the reason Nadal’s comeback has been so successful is because of how well-planned it was.
Though he was eager to come back for the Olympics or the U.S. Open last year, he remained patient when he knew he still wasn’t feeling right. He stayed off the practice courts until just three weeks before his tournament debut in Chile in February.
He kept active at the gym, making sure that he stayed in shape physically. He controlled what he could.
He came back on the surface that he feels the most comfortable on: clay. He came back at small enough tournaments that he could get in some match-play. By the time he got to Indian Wells in March, he was ready to face the top guys. By the time the European clay-court season was underway, he was back to the old Rafa.
But the real reason why his comeback was so successful is because his personality allowed it to be.
Nadal is one of the best problem solvers in the game and never gives up on a match, even when it seems out of his hands. This allowed him to fight through the matches that weren't going his way, both early in his comeback and during the French Open.
David Ferrer didn’t give him much of a battle in the final today, but that doesn’t mean this was a straightforward tournament for Nadal. The King of Clay had to play for the right to wear the crown again. He had to fight through slow starts against Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan along the way.
He had to overcome the No. 1 player in the world and his fiercest rival, Djokovic, in the semifinals in a nearly five-hour affair with more twists and turns than a daytime soap opera.
It all paid off today, though, as he won his record-smashing eighth French Open title at the age of 27.
Rafael Nadal never expects anything to just be handed to him. This allowed him to put the work in so he could earn back his place at the top of the tennis world. He was prepared to fight for it, he was prepared to be challenged and he was prepared to fall.
But instead of falling, he climbed straight back up to the top.