Rafael Nadal could be forgiven for walking around these days humming that old Timbuk3 pop song, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.” After getting the scare of his life from an unlikely source—his left knee—in July of 2012, Nadal left us for seven-plus months and returned uncertain of his future.
That future brought him a whopping 10 titles this year (so far), two of them in Grand Slam events (running his total to 13). It all culminated at the U.S. Open a few weeks ago, where he firmly and finally re-asserted his mastery of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. Nadal collapsed on the court when he won it, sobbing, and later all but declared the moment the happiest of his life: “For a few things, this is the most emotional season of my life.”
So where does he go from there, and what—if any—are the obstacles to his outright domination of the ATP tour for the next few years? None, at least none on the horizon today, now that he has Djokovic bamboozled again (Nadal has won six of their last seven matches).
The main question now settling around Nadal is whether he can surpass his original rival Roger Federer’s haul of 17 Grand Slam titles (to which Federer may yet add, although he’s already 32). The biggest hurdle Nadal faces in that quest probably is fitness. He’s seems healthy and supremely fit right now, but he also appeared strong after he rebounded from the knee tendinitis that played such a large role in ruining his perfect record at Roland Garros in 2009.
After Nadal was beaten in four sets in the fourth round by Robin Soderling that year, he was unable to defend his Wimbledon title and spent two months rehabbing his knees. All told, Nadal has missed six Grand Slam tournaments in his career because of injury. That’s not a startling number, but it’s not insignificant either, having played just 36 overall. Contrast it with the amazing record of Federer, who has played in 52 straight Slams and hasn’t missed one since the end of the last century.
But there’s no point in speculating about what the future holds in store for Nadal, injury-wise. All anyone can do is hope that he won’t be significantly impaired in what ought to be his two or three pending, peak years.
Short term, though, there is a significant obstacle awaiting Nadal. It’s the ATP World Tour Finals that will be played in London to end the year. Rafa's lack of a season-ending championship is the only striking hole in his resume; in fact, his overall record in the event (as well as its immediate predecessor, the Tennis Masters Cup) is wretched—at least by Nadal’s standards. His winning percentage is below .500 (9-10) and he’s won more than two matches just once in his five forays. Nadal has been in the Top 5 every year since 2005, yet he’s only played in the event five times. If this tournament is on his bucket list, somebody else plopped it in there. His own attitude is clear.
“I feel very unlucky that all the Masters Cup that I played was in indoor hard,” he said in New York. “Is a tougher surface for me to play well on . . . is something that I feel that is not fair. Because at the end, you qualify for the last tournament of the season when the best eight players are playing on outdoor, playing in indoor, hard, outdoor hard, playing on grass, playing on clay, so why the last tournament of the season should be every, every year on indoor hard?”
He makes a good point, but it will certainly be held against him in the long run if he doesn’t win the event at least once. But having completed the long hard-court swing in the U.S. unbeaten, Nadal is in a good position. And he knows there’s no great mystery about what it takes for him to win on hard. “Is true that I am playing a little bit more aggressive than before, more inside the court, closer to the baseline, going more for the points. But all this is possible because I am playing well and I am confident, no?”
Nadal needs to sustain that confidence through the fall. Should he want extra motivation this year—and judging by his attitude he could use it—try this: Djokovic has won the World Tour Finals twice, he’s 14-9, loves that court—and he’ll be gunning for Nadal all the way.
If you enjoy reading Pete Bodo at TENNIS.com, you might also be interested in his latest novel, The Reckoning. A revised version of this father-son story set in the Rocky Mountains has just been issued by e-publisher Diversion Books. Click here for more on this grand adventure tale, or to download the book.