Historically speaking, April has been a very good month for Rafael Nadal, and that proved to be true again last Sunday.
Nadal captured his second title of the month at the Barcelona Open for a record ninth time. The Spaniard, currently ranked fifth in the Emirates ATP Rankings, defeated sixth-ranked Kei Nishikori of Japan in straight sets in just over two hours. By winning the title, Nadal earned his 49th clay-court title, tying him with Guillermo Vilas atop the Open Era list. The Barcelona title comes exactly one week after Nadal was crowned champion of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, a tournament that he has won on nine other occasions.
“It was a very close match,” Nadal said. “There were a lot of chances for both of us but I think I have been solid. When you play against players with such a high level, the match is often decided by a few moments. So I feel happy that I handled all these moments well mentally.”
Although these victories have been expected from the Spaniard in the past, his recent form has left many questioning how much longer he has atop the tennis pedestal. Nadal has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, but has always managed to storm back in emphatic fashion, usually around this time of year when the players of the ATP tour travel to Europe to battle it out on the red clay.
During his first stint as the No. 1 ranked player in the world, Nadal started 2009 off as well as he could have by capturing the Australian Open title in Melbourne, his first grand slam on a hard court. However, a knee injury derailed the remainder of his year as he suffered his first ever defeat at the French Open, a title he had won for the past four consecutive years. The injury forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon two weeks later. Nadal’s Grand Slam year ended at the semi-finals of the U.S. Open when an abdominal strain greatly contributed to Juan Martin del Potro’s demolishing of him. The loss also cost him the No. 1 ranking.
Nadal picked up 2010 right where he left off in 2009 when he retired from his Australian Open quarterfinal due to another knee injury. At this point the tennis world was questioning just how long the Spaniard would be able to continue to compete at the level they had come to expect. Nadal’s extremely physical style of play had always been the cornerstone of his career, but it now looked like it would be the cause of his demise. His unrelenting desire to win every single point he played captivated and inspired millions around the world, but slowly broke his body down after a few demanding years on the pro tour. The sporting world began to accept that Rafael Nadal was the tennis player equivalent of a giant star found in space; creating a blinding light, growing larger and faster than one can really comprehend, only to become too big for its own good and collapsing in on itself.
But when a giant star dies, a neutron star is born. The European red clay gave life back to Nadal. He came roaring back and won titles in Monte-Carlo, Rome and Madrid, before reclaiming the French Open crown. He would close out the year by winning his second Wimbledon title and his first U.S. Open, making him only the fourth man to ever win all four Grand Slams. He would also regain the No. 1 ranking.
“The victory here confirms that I am better and I am very happy,” Nadal said after his win on Sunday. “It is a very, very, very, emotional week for me at an important event. It is an emotional moment after some tough moments. But that’s part of life. It is part of sport in general.”
Those “tough moments” Nadal was referring to have been the norm in recent years. A few more injuries and the emergence of Novak Djokovic has kept Nadal out of the winner’s circle over the past few seasons. In 2015, another knee injury appeared to have a dramatic effect on Nadal’s level of play and he failed to win a Grand Slam for the first time since 2005. He picked up a number of losses to players ranked well outside the top 50, failed to win a Master’s 1000 title, was not able to make it past the quarterfinals of any of the Majors and, perhaps most surprisingly, did not win a clay court tournament in Europe. 2016 didn’t get off to a promising start either, after he lost in the first round of the Australian Open to compatriot Fernando Verdasco and failed to win a title in two tournaments in South America against weak opposition. Nadal was quickly becoming illegitimate–a dangerous name to see in the draw, but not one that could do serious damage against the top four players, and one that could easily lose to someone ranked 70 spots lower than him. However, a string of good matches at the BNP Paribas Master’s in Indian Wells put Nadal into the semi-finals against Djokovic. Although the world No. 1 dispatched him relatively easily, the fact that he was even playing against big names again was a step in the right direction.
With two big titles on the dirt now under his belt, Nadal is starting to look more and more like his former self. He has yet to be tested against the likes of Djokovic, Federer or Murray, but he will surely be looking to send a message to them if they meet in the draws of either Rome or Madrid. If he were able to maintain and increase the level he is currently playing at, it would certainly not be a surprise to see the King of Clay hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires over his head when the French Open ends at the beginning of June.