Rafael Nadal in 2019: Slow(ish) Start, Rapid Finish

Rafael Nadal US Open

Rafael Nadal won the French Open again in 2019, and had an overall strong year. But it could have been even better.

Rafael Nadal: 2019 in review

Ranking at the beginning of the season: 2
Ranking at the end of the season: 1
Peak rank: 1
Low rank: 2
Ranking change: +1

Singles win/loss record: 58-7 (53-7 in ATP main draw matches)
Titles: Roland Garros, US Open, Davis Cup, Rogers Cup, Rome
Finals: Australian Open

Coming back from an injury

Having to finish his 2018 campaign with a retirement loss to Juan Martin Del Potro at the US Open, one couldn’t be too sure about Nadal’s form coming into the 2019 Australian Open. Placed in two-time defending champion Roger Federer’s half and on a rather fast surface, things weren’t looking too bright for him.

But we all know that Nadal is the injury comeback king. The Spaniard was hungry for blood and played the game a bit different than usual. Much more aggressive than before the injury, Nadal’s first-strike tennis was good enough to pull off six straight-set wins in a row. Perhaps best said by Stefanos Tsitsipas, his semifinal opponent – “It felt like a different dimension of tennis completely.”

It soon turned out that the Spaniard’s playstyle change wasn’t a coincidence. Not 100 percent fit yet, his defense was heavily exposed in the final against Novak Djokovic. The Serbian dominated from the baseline and never really gave Nadal a shot, taking an unprecedented seventh Australian Open title.

Nadal’s next event was Acapulco, where he lost to Nick Kyrgios in the second round, blowing three match points. Knee issues stopped him in Indian Wells as he had to pull out before a semifinal clash against Roger Federer.

Unexpected clay-court struggles

But even when facing more severe issues in the past, Nadal was always back at full flight for the clay-court season. Compiling a 50-2 win/loss record on the dirt in the previous two seasons, everyone expected the Spaniard to pick up right where he left off by the time Monte Carlo rolls around.

Despite a couple of bad symptoms in wins over Grigor Dimitrov and Guido Pella, Nadal just always seemed to have that extra gear. But running into Fabio Fognini playing the match of his life, the world no.2 was unable to respond to the Italian’s galore of breathtaking winners.

Failing to win in Barcelona (lost to Dominic Thiem) and Madrid (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas), the Spaniard found himself in a tricky spot. With just one event left before Roland Garros, the Rome Masters, there was little time to get himself into the right match rhythm.

But in less than a week, everything changed. Bageling Jeremy Chardy, Nikoloz Basilashvili and Fernando Verdasco on the way to the semifinals, Nadal took revenge on Tsitsipas to force a championship match meeting with Novak Djokovic. Ready to defend this time around and run around the court like a gazelle to frustrate the Serbian and win 6-0, 4-6, 6-1. Roland Garros title defense was coming and Nadal was ready.

Unbeatable at the French

Facing little issues on the way to the semifinals, the Spaniard run into Roger Federer. Clay, and especially the Philippe Chartier court, were always Nadal’s bastion in the matchup against the legendary Swiss. And so it was this time with the Spaniard being the far more consistent player on one of the windiest days in the history of the French Open. It wasn’t Novak Djokovic awaiting in the championship match this time, but his semifinal conqueror Dominic Thiem.

Thiem kept it rather close for two sets, but was unable to keep up with intensity. No matter if him running out of fuel was a matter of ridiculous scheduling that forced him to play four days in a row or Nadal’s tiring playstyle, it was a fantastic performance from the Spaniard, who once again exceeded what’s humanly possible and captured a 12th title at the Paris slam.

Big serving on the Wimbledon grass

Federer was yet again Nadal’s semifinal opponent at the third Major of the year. Coming into the match, the Spaniard seemed to be in better shape than his rival. Experts noticed the big improvements that the 2008 and 2010 Wimbledon champion made to his serve.

But although he was able to challenge the Swiss much more than his opponent did in their respective Roland Garros match, Federer proved he was still the better player on the grass lawns of Wimbledon. Extensively half-volleying from the baseline and keeping Nadal on the back foot, the Swiss never allowed his biggest rival to settle down and start pulverizing the lefty topspins to Federer’s backhand.

Late season hard court magic

Taking advantage of Federer and Djokovic missing the tournament, Nadal defended a hard court title for the first time in his career at the Rogers Cup. In the final, he smashed in-form Daniil Medvedev off the court. Going a little under the radar at the US Open, Nadal didn’t play a single top 20 player on the way to the final.

Waiting there was Daniil Medvedev again. If the Russian was in-form at the Rogers Cup, then he was an absolute beast by the second week of the US Open. Medvedev proved a much sterner challenge this time, taking Nadal to a very memorable deciding set. After almost five hours of a physical grindfest, the Spaniard came out the victor in New York for the fourth time. With just one Grand Slam behind Federer now, those who had written him off from the GOAT race had to eat their words.

Race for No.1

With a left-hand issue forcing him to withdraw from the Rolex Shanghai Masters, Nadal didn’t play a tour-level match for another two months.  An abdominal injury sustained during warm-up kept him from playing out the semifinal against Denis Shapovalov at the Paris Masters. The sensible decision would probably be to skip the ATP Finals, but with Novak Djokovic inching closer to him in the race for the year-end no.1, Nadal didn’t want to leave things to chance.

But coming to the O2 heavily underprepared, the Spaniard got blasted away by Alexander Zverev. Staging a ridiculous comeback against familiar foe Daniil Medvedev in his next group stage match, Nadal put a lot of pressure on Djokovic.

Although even another win couldn’t get Nadal out of the round-robin stage, Djokovic failing to achieve so as well meant that the year-end no.1 was to be in the Spaniard’s hands for the fifth time in his career (2008, 2010, 2013, 2017, 2019).

Best player in Davis Cup history

Known for his will to fight and impressive performances on the national team, Nadal was also the key factor in Spain’s inaugural Davis Cup Finals win. Going unbeaten in eight rubbers (5 singles, 3 doubles) saw the Spaniard be the undoubtedly most valuable player of the event. With both their quarterfinal and semifinal clashes going to a deciding doubles rubber, it was Nadal who was the best player on the court in both of these.

Expectations for 2020

Winning the Mubadala World Tennis Championship exhibition over Stefanos Tsitsipas just before Christmas, it seems like Nadal is much more ready to start his season than he was in 2019. The Spaniard will play the inaugural edition of the ATP Cup first, before going to Melbourne to seek another shot at a double career slam.

At this point of Nadal’s career, Grand Slams are what matters the most. The Spaniard has to find the tough balance between getting into a good match rhythm and not putting too much on his fragile body. Unless seriously injured, Nadal will obviously be the huge favorite to dominate the clay-court season and add another Roland Garros crown to his overwhelmed trophy cabinet.

What’s the most impressive about the Spaniard’s late-career is that he keeps evolving as a player. His serve has never been such a big weapon before and has allowed Nadal to shorten down the points, which should be the key to extending his career. It takes a great deal of motivation and determination to keep changing up stuff when you’ve already achieved so much. And Nadal’s desire to be the very best in the world is quite possibly bigger than anyone else’s.

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