Rafael Nadal's Top 10 Matches of 2013
Rafael Nadal's storybook year has seen him come back from a career-threatening injury to reclaim the No. 1 ranking. For Nadal, 2013 will rank alongside 2008 and 2010 as one of his epic years.
The only thing remaining would be winning the WTF final in London and the year-end No. 1 ranking. All of this has occurred despite missing the Australian Open and being eliminated in the first round at Wimbledon.
Which of his matches were the most impressive? Certainly, some matches were more important, but each of the following was crucial in either winning a title or showing another facet of his astonishing perseverance and talent.
10. Indian Wells 4th Round vs. Ernests Gulbis 4-6, 6-4, 7-5
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
It was a dark night of tension-filled tennis between Rafael Nadal and Ernests Gulbis. The latter had been riding a 13-game winning streak and was considered a favorite to win this encounter.
Nadal was still looking to improve his form after the Golden Swing on clay courts in South and Central America. His left knee was bandaged, and he was looking to fend off many questions about his durability on hard courts.
The match turned out to be a thriller. Gulbis took the first set by crushing ground strokes through the court. It seemed Nadal didn't have enough punch of his own and his defense was struggling.
Two things swung the match: First, Gulbis began to misfire with his forehand. Second, the errors and inconsistencies opened the door for Nadal to fight back.
It was the first real sign of his trademark resilience, something that buoyed him all the way to the Indian Wells title and foreshadowed greater things to come on North American cement.
9. Acapulco Final vs. David Ferrer 6-0, 6-2
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Only a few weeks into his comeback, Nadal had arrived at his third straight final for the Golden Swing clay-court tour in South and Central America. He had split titles at Chile and Brazil, but many thought that David Ferrer would be a much more formidable test.
The result was annihilation, even by the standards of Nadal's stranglehold over his fellow Spaniard. On this day, he hit with the kind of power that pushed Ferrer all over the court.
It was never a match but was a significant warning to the rest of the ATP: Nadal was back.
8. Beijing Quarterfinals vs. Fabio Fognini 2-6, 6-4, 6-1
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
It was supposed to be an easy match for Nadal on his way to regaining the No. 1 ranking at Beijing, China. Fabio Fognini played with true virtuoso spirit as if conducting his magnus opus on clay, oblivious to his usual faults on a hard court surface.
Suddenly, Nadal trailed 2-6, 1-4. A game later, he capitalized on a key break point and turned on his fighting spirit once again. He steamrolled in winning 11 of 12 games for the three-set victory.
Fognini was suddenly packing up his rackets and zipping in a tough lesson in how difficult it is to knock out the best player in the world.
Without the win, Nadal would not have regained his No. 1 ranking for another week. He clinched the top spot with a semifinal win against Tomas Berdych before going on to lose in the final to rival Novak Djokovic.
7. Rome Final vs. Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
By May, Nadal had hit his stride on clay following his first loss at Monte Carlo. It would be the only loss of the European clay court season, and he roared to titles in Barcelona and Madrid.
On the other side, Roger Federer had recently returned from troubling back injuries that had struck him at Indian Wells. And as always, Federer was the clear underdog on clay against his long-time rival.
From the outset, Nadal was quicker, more efficient and able to set up his offense. Federer never had a chance and the match quickly turned into a flashback of the 2008 French Open final.
Later Federer quipped about Nadal's seven month absence to recover from his injuries. "It goes to show that's what every player should do," Federer said to the AP via usatoday.com. "Now he's as strong as ever and is going to be the favorite for Roland Garros."
6. Madrid Quarterfinals vs. David Ferrer 4-6, 7-6, 6-0
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images
David Ferrer had only won four of 21 career matches against Rafael Nadal, but there he stood with a first set in his pocket and a 5-4, 30-15 advantage in the second set. Two points from victory and a rare win against his arch nemesis on clay...
The next point he coerced a floater from Nadal. The open court beckoned for him to put away the winner and set up two match points. For some reason, he slammed it at Nadal's feet and the ball was deflected back over the net.
It was one mistake but it was fatal.
Nadal rebounded with efficient tennis, won the tiebreaker and then handed Ferrer a bagel for the third set. He parlayed this into momentum for the next two matches to win his second Masters 1000 title of 2013.
Once again, David fell to Goliath.
5. Indian Wells Final vs. Juan Martin Del Potro 4-6, 6-3, 6-4
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Maybe it was the pressure or maybe it was fatigue.
Maybe it's just the way it is for Juan Martin del Potro. The big Argentine had already won two physical three-set matches against Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. He was up one set and 3-1 when the wheels came off.
Nadal is the best there is, perhaps ever, at continuing to find a way back when the barn door is closing. His persistence and a revamped, aggressive backhand caught fire.
Del Potro wilted in the desert heat. He also did not integrate the slice forehand that had proved so effective against Djokovic a match ago.
Was it his formerly injured wrist again?
BBC Sport captured Nadal's perspective. "When I was able to calm myself, I began to play better. I started to play a little bit slower; my movement was unbelievable. Then I play a fantastic match."
For Nadal, it was his first hard-court victory since the 2010 U.S. Open and a slap at the naysayers who said he could no longer win titles off clay courts.
4. Cincinnati Quarterfinals vs. Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Enjoy Rafa vs. Rajah for as long as possible. Though they are aging and vulnerable, they can still compete with shades of their former battles, as long as the match is not on red clay.
It was Federer who came out firing and aggressive. This was a pleasant surprise for his supporters because he had been missing time since late July with his intermittent back problems. The smart money had made Nadal the heavy favorite, even though the fast courts at Cincinnati favored Federer's game.
The Swiss Maestro bagged the first set and was even into the 10th game of the second set. Then he framed a ball into the upper decks.
Nadal took the break, the second set and an early break in the third set.
From there, the Spaniard was just good enough to avoid some of Federer's inconsistencies. Once again, Nadal was headed for another title, his fifth Masters 1000 title of 2013 and the middle act of the North American triple crown.
Federer lamented his chances, later explaining on nytimes.com "Could have won tonight? Should have won tonight? Who knows? But at the end, I think Rafa’s confidence and the way he’s playing at the moment got him through."
3. Montreal Semifinals vs. Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 7-6
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
The biggest rivalry in tennis had already seen Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic split two big matches at Monte Carlo and Roland Garros. Top ranked Djokovic was the strong favorite on Montreal's hard courts.
Instead, Nadal played with aggressive variety, attacking the Djokovic forehand. He didn't settle for hitting looping topspin shots into Djokovic's strong backhand. Nadal took the initiative in the first set while Djokovic floundered with unforced errors and double-faults.
Then the Serbian took control in the second set and sparked an electric atmosphere with some excellent tennis. They went all the way to the third set tiebreaker before Nadal ripped away the first six points and a 7-2 score for the match.
There were enormous implications for both players. Nadal had demonstrated he could defeat his rival on hard courts and be at least a co-favorite for the U.S. Open.
He also stormed further ahead for the year-end No. 1 ranking.
2. French Open Semifinals vs. Novak Djokovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7
Julian Finney/Getty Images
It was one of the greatest matches in French Open history, and perhaps the match of 2013. It also effectively decided the French Open title for Nadal, his eighth trophy at Roland Garros.
The match had everything. Neither player won two consecutive sets in an old-fashioned donnybrook that could have been a heavyweight boxing match.
Nadal thrived in the dry heat and was poised to wrap up the match in four sets. But Djokovic picked himself up and stormed back with a late fourth set break and a tiebreaker victory. Then, it was Djokovic who was up a break in the fifth set until a botched overhead reversed fortunes for both players.
Nadal simply outlasted Djokovic in a match that neared five hours and was reminiscent of their 2012 Australian Open marathon final. This time it was Nadal who was the victor.
"If we talk about everything that makes a match big, today we had all of these ingredients," Nadal said in usatoday.com.
1. U.S. Open Final vs. Novak Djokovic 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1
No player in tennis history has earned so many impressive wins in Grand Slam finals with big matches and legendary opponents. Which is his best? Wimbledon 2008? Australian Open 2009? U.S. Open 2010? French Open (pick a year)?
Where does U.S. Open 2013 rank?
Consider that a year before, Nadal was sitting on a couch in Mallorca, hoping his left knee would allow him to compete for Grand Slam titles again. There were many media and fans who said he would not win a Slam away from Roland Garros.
The No. 1 ranking seemed like a pipe dream.
But all of it came to fruition with another blend of dominance and comeback grit. He took charge in the first set, lost his way in the second and looked ready to lose the third set. Then, one more epic charge to steal the third set and rip away the fourth.
He is the world No. 1 and owner of 13 Grand Slam titles. How much more lies ahead? Time will tell.