Spanish superstar Rafael Nadal lost an instant classic to Roger Federer in the 2017 Australian Open final, but his gritty performance showed he will be a major contender in the months ahead. His 30-year-old body battled through a challenging lineup of stars, and he rediscovered much of his former greatness.
Nadal's post-match interview looked forward with optimism to compete on clay, per the Australian Open's official website:
I cannot predict what's going on in the future. That's always the same thing. I just think that I am playing well. I just think that I worked hard to be where I am. I believe that playing like this, good things can happen. Can happen here in this surface, but especially can happen on clay.
As always, Nadal is succinct. He's created all-time records and endured painful setbacks, but he's immersed only with the details to the process and not enamored with results. He's strapped on the armor for the months ahead, hoping to strengthen himself before he travels on the long and winding road through red-clay Europe.
Just what will it take for the King of Clay to wear the French Open crown for a 10th time?
The Dark Knight Rises
Five years ago, it seemed the golden age of men's tennis could not climb any higher. There was Superman Federer, cyborg Novak Djokovic and pesky Andy Murray vowing they would cross the line into immortality if only those other three would finally leave the planet.
Oh, and there was Batman Nadal, fierce as ever, playing with his wits and changing the ATP Tour into a surreal landscape of long, grinding matches that transcended what the sport had ever been. He was a contradiction of fire and composure and arguably the greatest fighter of all time.
It's 2017, and the golden age has no limits; it's an expanding universe of stalwart veterans and promising new stars. Above all, one immutable law: There's no killing off Superman, and the Dark Knight has re-emerged.
The great film director Christopher Nolan concluded his Dark Knight trilogy as if it were the defining script for Nadal's career. The final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, opens with its eponymous hero seemingly retired from super appearances for several years, his body wracked by injuries and his mind unable to find solace. How would he transition to midlife after fighting epic battles?
By the middle of the film, the Dark Knight returns, but he is unable to cope with more powerful forces. It's been too long, and he gets beat down and imprisoned in a deep hole where he must wallow in despair.
But the aging Dark Knight never loses hope. He heals from his wounds and fears, and he rebuilds himself with youthful vigor and mature sagacity. He's a legend with renewed purpose, and he knows it's his last dance with destiny.
This is where Nadal has arrived. He's regained the look of a champion by paying another price of total commitment. He's the dark alternative to fast courts and conventional methods. He is the only King of Clay.
Empire of Clay
It's been nearly three years since the sun set on Nadal's empire. He staggered past Kei Nishikori in the Madrid final and outlasted a feverish Djokovic at Roland Garros. The crash came soon after, and it was more than just injuries and loss of form. Nadal's confidence was reeling, and he was a shell of himself in 2015.
And forget about the Nadal who won Monte Carlo and Barcelona in 2016. He was climbing back, but fatefully slapped aside by a wrist injury at Roland Garros. The truth is, Nadal was not ready to defeat Djokovic or Murray. He was not going to rise up like the champion he had been a few years earlier.
The 2017 Australian Open was more than another epic chapter in the annals of golden-age tennis. It set up a greater opportunity for Nadal to rule on the red clay. Life began again at 30.
In Melbourne, Nadal showed he could play bruising physical tennis. He pounded with more power from the baseline, adding pace with this year's quicker Plexicushion surface, and he expanded his attack with more cutting backhands and better angles on both corners. He served sharper, pounced on more shots inside the baseline and played with aggressive conservatism instead of the other way around.
Best of all, Nadal fought like a lion, overcoming super young talents Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov, both in five sets. He bounced back from grinding marathons with more energized legs and unrelenting purpose. He paced himself, snarled, clenched his fist and quietly destroyed everyone younger than 35. Had he not pulled one sitting forehand across the net tape and off the court in the final, he would have gone up 4-2 in the fifth and possibly changed the narrative on the quest to determine the greatest player of all time.
Yes, Nadal showed he has more than enough weapons to win big titles from April through June. He's not scheduled to play extra February matches in South America but will instead compete closer to home in Rotterdam before heading to North America at the end of the month. Just so long as he paces himself, Nadal might consider withdrawing from Miami and Rome to stay fresh for Roland Garros.
The Spanish champion is listed as the No. 2 favorite on Oddschecker to win the French Open, behind Djokovic. There's a sense that only injury or fatigue can force him to kneel, despite young stars' formidable, rising challenges. And if Djokovic doesn't morph back into his Grand Slam self, a vigorous, attacking Nadal has a great chance at his 15th career major title.
He continued with his own assessment of why he can be even better on clay, per the Australian Open:
If I am able to play like this, to hold matches like I hold the other day, and recover well as I recovered, but on clay I recovered better than here, then the opponents don't get that many free points, and I am playing from the solid baseline.
If I made that happen, I think I can keep having success in hard courts, but on clay can be special.
He's in the twilight of his career, but Nadal has left his Batcave and answered the call. And while Murray, Djokovic and the rest of the tour look to write their own heroic stories, Nadal is harder, braver and willing to battle like he did back in 2012. The golden age continues.
The Dark Knight is back.