Rafael Nadal is King! Long live the new King of New York!
With all the hoopla and media frenzy over Rafael Nadal's recent US Open tennis triumph and his completion of tennis' career Grand Slam, there is another record that Nadal may be overtaking a few years down the road: Pete Sampras' record of weeks as the No. 1 ranked tennis player in the world.
In all likelihood, Nadal will be No. 1 in the world for a long, long time. For those who love stats, you will probably like this. For others, it may be an exercise in nerdiness, with myself as the King Nerd.
So, are there are good reasons to believe that Nadal will stay at Number One? Here's a few.
1. He is more dominant on his favorite surface, clay courts, than anyone in history.
Nadal already is the owner of the longest winning streak on any surface, 81 straight match wins, on clay. He is a virtual lock to win any tournament played on the red stuff.
Furthermore, clay is a surface that frustrates countless others on tour, who have little experience there. To many, it is like an alien world. Many avoid it altogether. Some who are powerhouses elsewhere and rendered impotent on the clay courts. There are a many specialists who thrive on the surface, and they swat away clay court amateurs like so many flies.
First among these is the Spanish Armada, who converge en masse at the clay tournaments. This is the stuff on which they were raised, and few can challenge their supremacy there. Verdasco, Almagro, Ferrer, Ferrero, Montanes, Feliciano Lopez, and others.
To make matters worse, if one survives that gauntlet, Nadal awaits, who is a level or two above even the specialists on clay. Nadal has won the French Open twice without losing a set, and some oddsmakers have offered bets recently not on whether or not Nadal will win the next French Open, but on whether he will win the next several in a row, or on if he will lose less than 20 total games in winning seven 5-set matches.
2. Nadal is becoming dominant on his "other" favorite surface, grass.
He has won his last two Wimbledons, and has joked to the press that now he is a "grass court specialist." Nadal spent many long days on grass courts growing up, and had success on the grass as a junior. He has "figured out" how to play there, and more success will come.
Just like on clay, there are grass court specialists who play those tournaments who are a threat there and nowhere else. These specialists swat down many of the top players, leaving Nadal to clean up the rest, and he is doing that with gusto.
Nadal has mentioned that the grass, like clay, rewards his superior movement, which is second to none in the men's game. His improved serve has enabled him to win a tour-best 90% of his service games there.
This year was supposed to be the year the "big hitters" took over, but Nadal was not only comfortable going toe-to-toe with them on his forehand side, but he was fine hitting repeated backhands to Berdych's forehand side, and winning most of the points there.
3. Nadal's recent improvements to his hard court game make him a threat there as well.
In the past, rivals could breathe a sigh of relief after the French Open and Wimbledon. On the hard courts, they wouldn't have to contend with Nadal and could post some good results, as the best Rafa could usually hope for was a semifinal berth, and was often bounced out even earlier. This year Nadal won the toughest of them all on hard courts, the US Open.
Not only did he go from not being predicted to survive into the second week there by many, but he won the tournament, and not just barely. Nadal won the tournament in historic fashion. His bigger serve won him lots of free points, and he was broken on serve the fewest number of times EVER at the US Open in winning the title. He came within one set of being the first to win the Open without losing a set in 50 years.
Furthermore, it wasn't just his powerful serve, but his crazy backhand slice won Nadal even more points as it drove opponents back in the court, and the spin caused dozens of shots to careen off opponents' racket frames as they tried to figure out how to get it back.
Since two-thirds of the season and two out of four Grand Slams are played on hard courts, in the past that left a lot of tournaments to pick up some points in the World Rankings. Many players who fared poorly on clay and grass looked forward to this time.
For these "hard court specialists" such as Andy Murray, Davydenko, Roddick, and others, this was their time. While Nadal will not win all or even most of these events now, he is certain to win more of them, and now that Nadal has figured out his schedule and how to minimize his knee tendinitis, he won't be limping into some of these events.
He will be healthy and ready, and gunning for the titles, with a terrifying snarl and an improved rocket serve clocked in the mid-130s. Yikes!
Points-wise, here is how Nadal does it, and how he will stay at the top for the foreseeable future:
The ATP counts the best 18 tournaments every year to determine rankings points:
Four Grand Slams worth 2,000 points for the winner.
Ten Masters Series events worth 1,000 points to win.
Four "other" tournaments, usually 500 point events.
For the last five years, Nadal has averaged almost 4,500 rankings points during the clay-court season. Last season, he won 5000 points playing one LESS tournament than his usual on clay. Without playing in any other tournament during the year, this average point total per clay season has been enough to put him among the top three or four in the world for the whole year.
That's just by playing in those four tournaments alone! Since Nadal has almost zero competition here, he is virtually guaranteed that total every year. So there's 4,500 points.
Then, if Nadal plays badly and only makes the quarterfinals or semifinals of the other Slams, without winning any of them, he would still add about 1,500 points to his total (quarters = 360 points, semis = 720 points). Nadal has achieved far above this total every year except last year when he skipped Wimbledon.
That gives him around 6,000 points without playing ANY of the hard court tournaments. That total would be good enough for No. 2 in the world most years at the end of the year rankings.
After that, he still would play the other seven Masters Series 1000 events on hard courts, plus four other tournaments to figure his points for the year-end ranking. Even if Nadal bombs out of almost every one of these tournaments and only produces 1,000 points more, he finishes with 7,000 points in the rankings, good enough to rank No. 1 in most of the last few year-end rankings.
With Nadal's improved serve, slice, volley, and overall hard court game, these are very low-end predictions. At this point, even if Nadal were abducted by aliens right now, he could not be passed for No. 1 for several months.
As it is, it is far more likely that Nadal wins a tournament or two on hard courts every year at minimum, and picks up at least 2,000 points-plus on hard courts each season, finishing with between 9,000 to 10,000 points in the rankings.
And that is still by winning only one Slam per year, the French. If he wins more than one, all bets are off.
Meanwhile, the others will be battling over the other hard court tournaments, trying to pick the bones and get whatever's left. The competition is getting fiercer now, with Djokovic back in the hunt, with Murray lurking, and Del Potro sure to surge back into the picture, along with the Swiss legend, Roger Federer.
So, that is the calculus. Nadal is without peer in the clay kingdom, getting closer to achieving that status on grass, and extending his rule into the hard courts. Others cannot claim dominance in any arena.
Federer is adept on all surfaces, but his game is waning. Not dramatically, but a few percent is enough to be passed by others. Murray doesn't have the game to win everywhere. Djokovic is close. DelPotro is not a threat on grass or much on clay yet.
Only Nadal has the game now to win on all surfaces, and not just to win but dominate, and that is how he will keep the No. 1 ranking for years to come.