Will Nadal finish back on top? The Spaniard faces two challenges

Will Nadal finish back on top? The Spaniard faces two challenges

Why does the 19-time Grand Slam champ, who has won more outdoor titles than any male player in the Open era, have so much trouble when he’s under a roof? 

Rafael Nadal has given us some of the most mind-boggling statistics in tennis history, especially the ones he’s racked up on clay. But he’s also given us one of the strangest: Of his 84 career titles, only two have come indoors. The first happened 14 years ago, at a hard-court tournament in Madrid that hasn’t existed for a decade; the second came on clay in Sao Paulo in 2013.

Why does Rafa, who has won more outdoor titles than any male player in the Open era, have so much trouble when he’s under a roof? 

We can start by noting that he doesn’t play many indoor events. The only ones that are regularly on his schedule—the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals—come at the end of the season, when he’s either worn down or banged up. In his 16-year career, this is just the seventh time Nadal has even entered Bercy. We can also note that the ball typically doesn’t bounce as high indoors, which doesn’t serve his heavy-topspin attack well. And we might remember his famous quote about how “the sun is energy.” Rafa likes the elements, and he likes to fight against them. I’ve always had the feeling that the pace of a match moves along too quickly and efficiently for him indoors.

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This weekend, though, Nadal will have the chance, and the motivation, to end his run of indoor futility in Bercy. With his 7-6 (4), 6-1 win over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on Friday, he’s into the semifinals there for the first time since 2013. And if he wins the tournament, he’ll clinch the year-end No. 1 ranking for the fifth time. 

Nadal has said that he came to this tournament looking to win more free points on his serve—even if that means living with a lower first-serve percentage—and to try to end rallies more quickly than he traditionally does. He has certainly succeeded at the former. Against Tsonga, Nadal made 69 percent of his first serves, but he won 93 percent of them and never faced a break point. The most important shot he hit in the match was a second serve at 5-4 in the first-set tiebreaker; instead of slicing the ball wide in the ad court, as he usually does, Rafa upped the pace and went down the T, surprising Tsonga and drawing a return error.

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In Nadal’s mind, there are always new challenges to be met, even at 33. He’ll face two of them in the coming days: Can he temporarily remake himself into an indoor player and (a) win either the Paris Masters or the ATP Finals in London for the first time, and (b) hold off Novak Djokovic for No. 1. Neither will be easy. In the semis on Saturday, Nadal will face a suddenly solid Denis Shapovalov, who has a victory over Rafa on hard courts. If he wins that, Nadal will likely face Djokovic, who has won this event four times, and who played some of his cleanest tennis of 2019 in dismantling Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-1, 6-2 on Friday. 

Whatever happens, it’s good to have Nadal finishing a season strong, and still trying to find ways to do things he hasn’t done before.