Examining the record of Rafael Nadal, it is irrefutable that the redoubtable Spaniard has established himself as one of the most multifaceted players tennis has ever known. He is tied with Roger Federer for the most men’s Grand Slam singles titles with 20. He has captured all four majors at least once, joining only seven other men in the exclusive career Grand Slam club. He stands alongside Pete Sampras and Ken Rosewall as the only men ever to prevail at Grand Slam tournaments during their teens, twenties and thirties. He has secured 86 career titles on the ATP Tour, including 35 prestigious Masters 1000 crowns.
To be sure, Nadal has realized almost all of his largest dreams across a sterling career. He has been the ultimate professional. But this indefatigable competitor still has meaningful targets left to hit.
The inimitable southpaw is currently in Paris competing at the Rolex Paris Masters—given a bye as the top seed, he will take on countryman Feliciano Lopez in the second round—and he plans to move on to London for the Nitto ATP Finals in a few weeks for the season-ending tournament reserved for only the top eight players in the world.
Somewhat surprisingly, Nadal has never won either of these highly regarded indoor tournaments. In seven previous appearances at the Rolex Paris Masters (the last Masters event of the year), Nadal made it to the final once, in his 2007 debut, and has subsequently bowed out in three semifinals and three quarterfinals. That, of course, is a solid record, but not up to his customarily high standards.
He has played the ATP Finals nine times, finishing as the runner-up to Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic three years later, reaching the semifinals on three other occasions. Again, hardly a poor record, but far from the lofty level Nadal has grown accustomed to.
Nadal won three Grand Slam titles in 2010, but he couldn't cap the year with a season-ending championship. (Getty Images)
But this year could be different for Nadal. Almost always at the end of the season, Nadal has been diminished and largely devoid of emotional energy after long and debilitating campaigns. Physically, he has been fundamentally fatigued and essentially spent. Far too frequently this dynamic individual has been in no position to play the sport on his terms at this time of the year in conditions that don’t suit him to the hilt.
Remember, too, that Nadal has secured only one indoor title over the course of his career—way back in 2005, in Madrid, when he rallied valiantly from two sets to love down to top Ivan Ljubicic for the title.
And yet, he is much better equipped these days to perform productively in quick indoor conditions than ever before. Especially since 2017, Nadal has altered his thinking, stationing himself closer to the baseline, shortening points whenever possible, playing not only with his old consistency but also a newfound aggression that makes him more formidable indoors and, for that matter, everywhere else. He has taken matters more into his own hands, gained greater control of his own destiny, and reshaped his game under the guidance of his cerebral coach, and fellow Mallorcan, Carlos Moya.
Nadal is poised for something substantial as he closes his 2020 campaign. The lefty wizard was philosophical as he spoke the other day about his history of misfortune in Paris-Berct and the season-ending championships. But he did not sound discouraged by his disappointing history at the two big tournaments.
“In some places you have more success and in others a little bit less,” Nadal said. “Yeah, it is true that of course at the end of the year in the past I arrived sometimes very tired physically and sometimes mentally, too. And at the same time on indoor courts I need to be fresh. It is probably the surface that I need to be playing better to try to have success.
“In Bercy I had a lot of issues. I had to retire from the tournament a couple of times (including last year prior to the semifinals). In the [ATP] Finals I have been there a lot of times in the semifinals and in the final a couple of times. I didn't win. It’s a tough tournament to win, playing against the best players in the world under difficult circumstances.”
The Spaniard looked ready to snap his Paris indoor hex last fall, but he was forced to withdraw before his semifinal match after sustaining an injury during his warm-up. (Getty Images)
Nadal has played only 26 matches over the course of an abbreviated season. He was gone from the game for six months during the pandemic, electing not to defend his US Open title, returning in Rome and then capturing his 13th Roland Garros crown. Now Nadal is back in his workplace and much fresher physically than he has been in the past during the homestretch of the season. Moreover, the way he swept through Roland Garros without losing a set—culminating with a comprehensive 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 triumph over Djokovic—Nadal is brimming with self conviction. His current outlook will make the quest for a breakthrough at Paris-Bercy or London more likely. His body and his mind should be more than ready to meet that challenge.
In 2020, no one has won a greater percentage of second-serve points in the men’s game than Nadal. As the Infosys ATP stats reveal, Nadal has taken 59 percent of the points on his second delivery. Moreover, he is fourth on the list for service games won at 87 percent. Nadal has also won 38 percent of his first-serve return points, surpassing everyone in that category. On second-serve return points, he stands in third place at 58 percent. He has converted 50 percent of his break-point opportunities, the best percentage in the game, and he also is also tops in return games won, at 40 percent.
Statistics like these are emblematic of Nadal’s enduring, all-surface excellence. Four times in his career—2004, 2005, 2014 and 2016—Nadal has been the game’s first-serve percentage leader. He finished among the Top 10 for service games won nine of 14 years from 2006-2019. Between 2005 and 2019 he finished all but four years among the Top 10 for break points saved, always between 64 and 71 percent.
There is more. In nine different years between 2005-19, Nadal was No. 1 for both first-serve return points won and return games won. Year after year, he has evolved in a multitude of ways, honing his game however he can, making significant adjustments without taking himself out of his comfort zone, tinkering with his serve to make it more of a weapon, altering his positioning on the return of serve.
The last time we saw Rafa returning serve in Paris, things turned out pretty well. (Getty Images)
Nadal is an outstanding craftsman who has always believed he could improve, demonstrably and steadily strengthening many facets of his game for nearly two decades. He has reinvented himself in many ways. The teenager who captured the imagination of the public when he won Roland Garros for the first time in 2005 was a vastly different player from today’s considerably more versatile version.
And the 34-year-old never stops searching for ways to improve. He simply moves beyond himself time and again, which is why it is entirely possible that he will remain in the forefront of the game until his late thirties. At the tail end of his twenties, no one—including perhaps Nadal himself—thought that was going to happen.
Be that as it may, Nadal refuses to get ahead of himself. He is not preoccupied at the moment about the coming year, or the seasons which will follow. His immediate priorities are all that matter, and that means throwing his heart and soul into winning the Paris Masters and the ATP Finals for the first time.
The view here is that taking both titles is too tall of an order, but winning one of those elusive crowns is a distinct possibility. As Nadal said the other day in his typically understated way, “I’m just going to keep trying my best as I did all my tennis career and hope to give myself chances.”