Following his resounding triumph at Flushing Meadows this week, LaverCup.com takes a closer look at Rafael Nadal’s Road to Prague.
We should not be surprised, yet we ought to stand in awe: Rafael Nadal, little more than a year removed from his latest lengthy spell on the sidelines, is once again the reigning Roland Garros and US Open champion, his first multiple major-winning season since 2014. Like his trademark topspin drives, no player bounces back in bigger fashion than the man from Mallorca.
Nadal claimed his 16th major title with a typically ruthless display against first-time Grand Slam finalist Kevin Anderson, surging to a 6-3 6-3 6-4 victory on Sunday. He now owns three US Open titles along with a Parisian ‘Decima’, twin Wimbledon triumphs, and victory at the Australian Open in 2009.
His first New York title came a year later, making the then-24-year-old the youngest man in the Open era to complete the career Grand Slam. At that time he reigned supreme at three of the four majors, with Roger Federer laying claim to the Australian Open title in 2010.
Seven years on, the feted duo have shared the Grand Slam spoils once more, with Federer triumphant in Melbourne and Wimbledon. But while the Swiss may have come out on top in their three showdowns this year, it is Nadal who has ascended to the top of the ATP rankings for the fourth time following his latest US Open triumph – the first time he has assumed the No.1 ranking since July 2014, and over nine years since his first spell at the top, in August 2008, an unprecedented span since rankings began.
The 31-year-old had already made history in 2017, becoming the the first player to win 10 titles at an ATP event at Monte-Carlo, before repeating the feat in Barcelona and claiming a record-equaling 30th Masters crown in Madrid. His 10th Roland Garros title soon followed – won without dropping a set – and while he was stunned in five sets at Wimbledon by Gilles Muller and saw his hard-court title drought carry on all the way to New York, it was clear that the time spent recuperating in late 2016 had paid dividends this season.
No coach has led a man to more Grand Slam titles than the sweet 16 Rafa and Toni Nadal have now won together – Lennart Bergelin, who coached Björn Borg to 11 majors between 1974 and 1981, is next on the list. But the 2017 twin-vintage must rank among the very sweetest successes that the uncle and nephew have enjoyed together.
A litany of injuries, confidence issues, and the rise of Novak Djokovic each contributed to a Grand Slam title drought dating back to 2014, the longest of his career. His run to this year’s Australian Open final ended a 10-tournament stretch of failing to reach even the final four at a major, let alone a title match; and while he came up short in an intense five-set battle with Federer, there seemed little doubt that Nadal was approaching his belligerent best once more.
Unbeknown to him at that time, however, was that this was to be his last year on tour under the guidance of his uncle, who will step down at the end of 2017 to run the Rafael Nadal Academy in Mallorca. Whether that served as added motivation to claim an unprecedented 10th Roland Garros title – ending their time in Paris as it began, with the Coupe des Mousquetaires – or New York, where Toni sat in the box as Rafa’s coach for the last time at a major and watched Nadal emerge victorious once more, who is to say. What can be said with certainty is this: Toni Nadal’s role in his phenomenal nephew’s success puts him among the greatest coaches the game has ever seen.
“Without him, I probably would never had played tennis,” said Nadal, who has also been working with Carlos Moya this year with a view to life after his uncle’s retirement. “It’s great that I had somebody like him to push me all the time. He was strong and had great motivation to practice with me when I was a kid and I was able to get through the problems that I have had in my career in terms of injuries, which makes me stronger. He is one of the most important people in my life.
“Personally, it is unbelievable what has happened this year. After a couple of years with some troubles and injuries and not playing well, since the beginning of the season it’s been very emotional.
Since the first important event of the year in Australia I’ve been playing at a very high level and I closed the Grand Slam year by winning here in New York.
“I can just say thank you very much to life, for the opportunity,” Nadal added in New York, a perfectly imperfect tribute in his fractured English. Few have grasped the opportunities that came their way with greater zeal, and greater success.
RAFA’S ROAD TO PRAGUE
Brisbane International (outdoor hard): Quarterfinal lost to Milos Raonic 6-4 3-6 4-6
Australian Open (outdoor hard): Final lost to Roger Federer 4-6 6-3 1-6 6-3 3-6
Abierto Mexicano Telcel (outdoor hard): Final lost to Sam Querrey 3-6 7-6(3)
BNP Paribas Open, Indian Wells (outdoor hard): Round of 16 lost to Roger Federer 2-6 3-6
Miami Open (outdoor hard): Final lost to Roger Federer 3-6 4-6
Monte Carlo Masters (outdoor clay): Final defeated Albert Raomos-Vinolas 6-1 6-3
Barcelona Open (outdoor clay): Final defeated Dominic Thiem 6-4 6-1
Madrid Open (outdoor clay): Final defeated Dominic Thiem 7-6(8) 6-4
Internazionali BNL d’Italia, Rome (outdoor clay): QF lost to Dominic Thiem 4-6 3-6
Roland Garros, Paris (outdoor clay): Final defeated Stan Wawrinka 6-2 6-3 6-1
Wimbledon, London (outdoor grass): Round of 16 lost to Gilles Muller 3-6 4-6 6-3 6-4 13-15
Couple Rogers, Montreal (outdoor hard): Round of 16 lost to Denis Shapovalov 6-3 4-6 6-7(4)
Western & Southern Open, Cincinnati (outdoor hard): Quarterfinal lost to Nick Kyrgios 2-6 5-7
US Open, NY (outdoor hard): Final defeated Kevin Anderson 6-3 6-3 6-4