Why Rafael Nadal Will Have a Difficult Time Keeping His No. 1 Ranking in 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistMay 7, 2014

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 03:  Rafael Nadal of Spain in a practice session during day one of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 3, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

It’s time for Rafael Nadal to really defend his No. 1 ranking. The Spaniard’s time at the top has lasted seven months, but it will end if he continues to play below his best level and if Novak Djokovic returns quickly to play great tennis.

Maybe this is exactly what Nadal needs, to be backed into a corner by the prodding picadors, and given no choice but to charge forward with all of his bullish intensity. If he hopes to circle the arena with one more French Open trophy, he cannot be merely good. He must be great over the next several weeks.

Nadal can hold onto No. 1, but only if another epic streak is due to burst upon Europe and North America as if he were stepping out of a 2010 time machine.


The Seven-Month Seasons

When Nadal lost his famous 2012 second-round Wimbledon match to Lukas Rosol, he was forced into seven months of hibernation from the tennis scene. It was a winter of discontent, of healing his broken body and revamping his game. He could only watch as the U.S. and Australian Opens passed by like dark clouds.

Then Nadal burst into bloom, dominating the 2013 European spring clay like an immortal god, complete with thunderbolt forehand and booming confidence. He crushed all comers on North America’s sizzling summer cement. He was the best player from late February to late September, even though he was not ranked No. 1 during this time.

That’s the way the No. 1 ranking can work. The labors and diligence of planting seeds takes months to bear the rewarding fruits. He became the No. 1 player only after winning 10 titles, including five Masters 1000 tournaments and two majors.

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - APRIL 16:  Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts to a penalty after taking too much time between serves against Teymuraz Gabashvili of Russia during day four of the ATP Monte Carlo Rolex Masters Tennis at Monte-Carlo Sporting Club on April 16
Julian Finney/Getty Images

Then in October, he stopped winning titles, precisely as he claimed the No. 1 crown. Seven months have passed again, and he has not been the No. 1 player during this time. Djokovic and Stanislas Wawrinka have been better, but Nadal’s top ranking has fed off the fruits he harvested after his great spring and summer winning.

He has been good, reaching finals at the Barclays WTF in London and the Australian Open. He added a title at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in February. The Race to London shows that he is in fourth place for 2014.

So it’s not like Nadal has dropped off the edge of the Earth like some mythical pre-Columbus caravel ship. But he has not played great, injured or otherwise.

Now the stores of his abundance have been used up, and he must forage once again to stay at the top. Even if Djokovic is slow to return to tennis, Nadal will only find a much lengthier stay at No. 1 if he can play like the best player in the world once again.

It’s easy to say that Nadal can flip a switch and start dominating again, but he has not shown this in seven months. His prize points are evaporating like dew on hot clay.

He needs another seven-month burst of Rafa tennis.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 03:  Rafael Nadal of Spain with coach and uncle Toni together in a practice session during day one of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 3, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images


Points and Possibilities

Nadal must defend a perfect 4,000 points at Madrid, Rome and the French Open. Meanwhile, Djokovic has only 910 points to defend. With Nadal’s rankings lead at 1,860 points, he could have conceivably lost the No. 1 ranking by next week had he lost before the quarterfinals and Djokovic won Madrid.

Even with Djokovic sidelined, if Nadal does not win Madrid, he stands to lose anywhere from 400 to about 900 points. Then Rome will demand another perfect performance or a similar drop in the rankings. If Djokovic wins that tournament, he could be the new No. 1 in two weeks.

Rick Rycroft/Associated Press

Stanislas Wawrinka is also gaining ground on the No. 1 ranking, but he will need to prove he can consistently play great tennis in more big matches and title-opportunities. Losing to Dominic Thiem in Madrid does not help his cause, but Wawrinka has shown that he can bounce back.

Of course Wawrinka also needs to see Nadal crumble and Djokovic sidelined, but he is currently the 2014 points leader. He already has more points in 2014 than in all of 2013, meaning he has just about guaranteed himself a berth in the WTF year-end final, even if he does not win another match this year.

Roger Federer could also get in on the No. 1 ranking, but it’s less likely he will win Rome and Paris. His big push could come in winning Wimbledon and dominating North America.

All of which should mean nothing to Nadal except that he must renew his greatness. For him the job will require optimum health and energy, efficient attacking and big results. One point, one game, one set and one match at a time are the brick-by-brick construction to towering results.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Rafael Nadal of Spain talks to the media during day two of the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament at the Caja Magica on May 4, 2014 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images


Nadal’s Road Back to Dominance

The most essential task at hand is for Nadal to find the zone, on the clay courts that have been the foundation to his empire. It’s not only important for his form and confidence, but imperative in facing a long, hard summer.

Suppose that Nadal does sweep the next three tournaments and defend his 4,000 points through the French Open. Even a solid Wimbledon is not much insurance against the North American tour. Let’s assume that Nadal gets to the Wimbledon semifinals and picks up 720 points. If he then goes to Toronto and loses in the semifinals, he will have only barely topped the Montreal points he had gained in 2013.

He would still have to sweep Cincinnati and the U.S. Open to prevent further hemorrhaging with his ranking. Then, it would be on to the indoors season, where Nadal has not shown the same level of dominance. His No. 1 ranking must be maintained or won before October cools off his results.

Right now, Madrid has laid out the red carpet for Nadal’s comeback. Djokovic is out with a wrist injury; Federer is spending time with his newborn children; Wawrinka is packing for Rome. There are still plenty of capable winners left in the draw, but it’s Nadal’s tournament to win or lose.

Now is the time for Nadal to make his stand. Will he come back with snarling vengeance and play like the focused warrior he has usually been? Were the past few weeks merely a bump along the road to a ninth French Open?

Maybe his body will have more energy for another four weeks of throwback tennis. Maybe his mind will recalibrate the feeling of being the hunter once again, and he will come out like he is chasing the No. 1 ranking rather than defending it.

It’s just not going to be easy, but this is what brings out the very best tennis from Nadal.