Rafael Nadal Lost Number 2: Terminator Is Not Back Yet

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Rafael Nadal Lost Number 2: Terminator Is Not Back Yet
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

After falling to Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter final, 7-6(5), 6-1, Rafael Nadal has lost his No. 2 world ranking as No.3 Andy Murray defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Saturday's closely contested semifinal, 6-4, 7-6 (8). In a display of one of the best defenses in the tour and widest variety of shots, Murray prevailed over the Frenchman and became the first British player in the history of the ATP Rankings (since 1973) to occupy the No. 2 spot. Previously, eleven other players have achieved the feat in the open era, since the rankings began.

However, Murray's new crown is not asteriskless as he is the only one among the current top five players without a major title. He indirectly acknowledged the lack.

“It’s great,” said Murray. “In terms of rankings [it is] the biggest step I've made so far. I played consistently well this year, so bar winning a [Grand] Slam, I've done enough to justify being [No.] 2, and getting closer to hopefully one day becoming No. 1 is one of my goals. I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get to this stage, and I keep working hard to go one step farther” (emphasis added).

Since July 18, 2005, Nadal and Roger Federer have occupied No. 1 and No. 2, and this is the first time a player will break the Nadal-Federer duo's stranglehold of the top two spots.

The immediate consequence did not reflect in yesterday's Cincinnati Masters draw, where Nadal is still seeded as No. 2 and could face Novak Djokovic in the semifinal, but the same may not hold true for long if the Spaniard does not win the Cincinnati title, and if Murray makes a deeper run beyond the quarter final in the same event.

Even if the Spaniard, a two-time champion in Canada ('05, '08), had survived the Argentine and reached the semifinal (8845 points), Nadal, whose next opponent would have been Andy Roddick, was not safe from losing his No. 2 ranking to Murray.

The Scott, by reaching the final, earned 8850 ranking points, i.e. 185 points more than Nadal's. With the win over Juan Martin del Potro in the final on Sunday, 6-7(4), 7-6(3), 6-1, Murray's ranking points has reached 9250, increasing the margin against Nadal by 585 points. 

After Federer and Nadal lost in the quarter (8665 points), only Tsonga could have done the Spaniard a favor and saved him from losing the No. 2 ranking, but that did not happen today. In another hypothetical scenario, if Federer had reached the semifinal, he would have been in Tsonga's position to defeat Murray (8610 points) and rescue Nadal.

Would not that have been a strange situation to witness, even for a fleeting moment?

If Nadal cannot reclaim his No. 2 before the US Open, he could be seeded for the first time in Federer's half after more than four years and will meet the Swiss in the semifinal, if both make it, for the second time since 2005 French Open semifinal (I excluded 2006 and 2007 Year End Championshios due to the Round Robin format).

It is not inconceivable for Nadal to reclaim his No. 2 ranking before the US Open. If he wins the Cincinnati Maters title and if Murray falls before the semifinal, the Scott will not get a chance to enjoy the No. 2 seeding in the US Open. The point is the Spaniard is not out of the striking distance.

Let's rewind the tape a bit.

After one of the most shocking defeats in tennis history at the French Open and subsequent withdrawal from Wimbledon, Nadal took a little over two months off to recover from tendinitis.

Then, a couple of days ago, he first appeared playing doubles at the Rogers Cup. He was in a sleeveless shirt, and many thought the old Tarzan Nadal was back—but not so fast.

Before the quarter final, Nadal had barely spent 1 hour 45 minutes on the court.

The day before yesterday, he acknowledged that, "I need more matches to get the rhythm, the physical rhythm and tennis rhythm..."

His second round opponent retired after seven games, and the third round opponent was 45th-ranked Philipp Petzschner from Germany—not quite worthy to bring out where Nadal's body and game stood at that point.

Yet, even after the two rounds of matches, the question remained, "Is Nadal, the punk rocker of tennis, back?"

At the literal level, Rafa has returned to the tour, but he has yet to prove he is back in the Terminator sense of "I-am-baack."

In one of the interviews before the tournament, Nadal did not sound like he was "back." 

"I have to continue to work on court, and we're going to see in a few weeks, no? Now I'm just here to practice hard and to enjoy playing tennis all the time, and trying to find my best form as soon as possible. [But] here in Montreal, it's going to be almost impossible."

The day before the Rogers Cup kicked off, he undermined all expectations.

"I will do the best I can to get a good result," said Nadal. "When you play, you always try to give a hundred percent. [However] I’m prepared to lose as well."

Surrounded by a mustering pessimistic, esoteric cloud, when Nadal faced in-form No. 6 del Potro on Friday, the Spaniard, despite a 4-1 head-to-head lead, did not find his range, committing too many unforced errors and appearing to play tentatively shorter balls, a pattern that always recurs and affects his game adversely on hard court whenever he is unsure of his game.

After their last meeting in Miami in March, this was Nadal's second consecutive loss to the Argentine on hard court.

He admitted his lack of confidence before the Friday's match.

"I think I say before the tournament my goal here is only try to improve every day, and I think I am," said Nadal. "I am not the favorite for sure for the match of tomorrow, but the match [is] going to give me another rhythm. The result, gonna be good experience [for] me to continuing improving in my level."

Coming into the match, something that has not happened since mid-2005 must have been lurking at the back of Nadal's mind. He knew his ranking was on the line, but sheer will was not enough.

In the post-match interview, Nadal expectantly did not sound unhappy about the Friday's result and over all tournament performance.

"I was very happy with my first set. It was my best level after the injury, and I was playing very good, I think.  So I am very happy about the match-up today. It was a little bit normal after almost two months outside of competition. It was tough for me to play at this level. I needed more concentration than usual. I'm very happy and everything was very positive today.

"The knees are very good, so that's very good. I must be very happy about this tournament," said Nadal. 

If not hearing from him, Nadal's fans want to SEE the nothing-is-impossible and I-am-ready-to-win Nadal, not it-is-going-to-be-impossible and I-am-prepared-to-lose Nadal.

We know the freak of nature, the beast, the ogre, the hidden dragon, the crouching tiger of tennis speaks the truth more on court through his racket head than through his oration. The fans want to see the language of his topspin, power, speed, and movement do relentless beating of his opponents on every point played, including the current No. 1.

Nonetheless, the language some want to hear from Rafa is, "Hey, I am just practicing in these two Masters. I am not gonna let the US Open slip away from me."

It may not have been a big deal that his No. 1 ranking has been taken away, and now it is certain that the No. 2 will go away, but what must have hurt him more, in my opinion, is that he let two of his Slam titles be "taken away" by Roger Federer, which increased the Slam gap and his future target.

That is not a pleasant burden to shoulder lightly.

If Rafa should hurt his knees again in an effort to reclaim the ranking, he may not be able to contend for the title at the Flushing Meadows. For that reason, he may have rightly taken a cautious approach to this tournament.

Maybe it is good that he lost here, giving him more time to recuperate, acclimatize, recharge, and get his rhythm back.

In whole of Federer-Nadal era, Rafa has been the other half, the yang to the yin, embodying all the characteristics (hard, fast, solid, focused, hot, and aggressive) in bringing out the quiescence.

If we enjoy tennis in Roger because of his choreographic, rhythmic, efficient, and smart play, in Rafa, we are blessed with reversal of economy.  Rafa has brought the yang of investment, expenditure, durability, urgency, and expediency.

And Rafa has elevated mental fortitude to another level. He initiated us into the joy of power and quickness, and has ushered in a style of get-the-ball-back-in, whose followers could be seen in the likes of Murray and Roddick.

The former figured out how to beat Federer, admittedly, watching Nadal—and the latter has inched closer, improving his defense.

Early in his career, Rafa sent out a message to fellow players that if you are too slow to adapt to the power and speed, you are soon going to become an antiquarian of tennis, the last rudimentary dinosaur of museums.

And those who listened to Rafa are doing well in the tour today.

That yang of speed and power, which we desperately wanted to see, looked mellow, fragile, and dejected last night. That force of nature has not found a foothold in his return. 

Rafa is not back yet, not in the Terminator sense of "I-am-baack." And time is not quite on his side. Yet tennis fans, especially Rafa fans, hold their hopes in patience for his full throttle comeback, sooner rather than later. For him to fully assert his comeback, he has to win the Cincinnati title and go deeper in the US Open or somehow manage to win the last Slam of the year. That is a tall task for now, but with Rafa, nothing can be ruled out yet, though resonable doubt lingers.

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