By simply making the final of the China Open, Rafael Nadal guaranteed he would reclaim his No. 1 ranking. It doesn't matter that the man he is overtaking, Novak Djokovic, will be his opponent in the final.
This will be Rafa's first return to the No. 1 ranking since 2010.
Nadal didn't even have to break a sweat while advancing to the final. The 27-year-old was a break up at 4-2 in the opening set when Tomas Berdych was forced to retire from the match. Of course, Nadal may not have had to break a sweat anyway. The Spaniard, who was once labeled as a clay-court specialist, has been dominant on hard courts this year.
He is now 27-0 for the season on hard courts. That includes winning the U.S. Open after beating Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 in the final.
Now, these two rivals are set to meet for the 38th time in their career. Nadal has a 22-15 edge in the head-to-head matchups of these two. However, Djokovic holds an 11-7 edge on hard courts.
Also, Djokovic has dominated in China. Nole has never lost in the China Open and has won the title three times. These facts would certainly lead one to siding with Nole in this matchup, but Nadal has been a different player on hard courts this year. That's helped him pick up two hard-court wins over Djokovic.
Nadal has cranked up his service game. This has suited him well on hard courts. More than that, though, is the fact that Nadal has been eager to look for more winners. He is playing more aggressively than ever. No longer is he content to sit back and play a rally game. He is rushing the net more often and looking for winners. Needless to say, it has worked to perfection.
He is also in good form heading into the final having lost just one set in this tournament.
I expect this final to play out much like the recent one in Flushing Meadows. Nadal was able to take control of that match with his new aggressiveness, and it left Djokovic scrambling for answers he never found.
During this season, it has become clear that if Djokovic and Nadal both play at their best on hard court, then Nadal is going to win. Considering Nadal has been nothing but his best on hard courts all season, I expect nothing less than another fantastic match and victory in this final.
With this title under his belt, Nadal will almost be assured to take the No. 1 ranking into next season. Considering he started off this year on the sideline while nursing his troublesome knee, this has been a season for the ages for the already legendary Spaniard.