Men’s professional tennis is in an interesting place these days. In some ways, it feels like not much has changed since the years of the “Big Four” dominating the ATP. Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Andy Murray are still considered by most to be the top three players in the world, and there have still only been a few instances in the last decade when a grand slam event was won by someone other than those three and Rafael Nadal. There’s been some turnover—a few veterans hitting their strides (like Stanislas Wawrinka) and a few up-and-comers pushing for consistent contention (like Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic)—but for the most part, the top remains unchanged.
On the other hand, what the players at the top are actually able to accomplish has changed drastically. Yes, the top three players are still members of the “Big Four,” but contention looks different these days. Djokovic has replaced Federer and Nadal as the presumptive champion of nearly every tournament; Federer and Murray are still reliable to make semifinals and finals, but less so to win; and most notably, Nadal has become a virtual non-factor in the eyes of many fans.
Yet, Nadal suddenly appears to be battling back into the conversation—and perhaps that shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. He hasn’t been anything like the dominant champion he was in the past, but a mixed finish last season inspired some confidence heading into 2016, and he may just be finding his groove.
Closing Out 2015
Nadal nearly ended 2015 on one of the sourest notes of his career. He crashed out of the U.S. Open in an epic third-set loss to Fabio Fognini, confirming, in many people’s eyes, that he just couldn’t compete the way he used to. And after the U.S. Open (the final grand slam event of the year), a lot of fans tend to tune out until January and the start of a new season. Thus, you may have missed Nadal’s excellent response to this whole debacle. He made the final of the ATP China Open (beating Fognini to get there) and the semis of the ATP Shanghai Rolex Masters. He finished in the top four at the World Tour Finals in London and closed out the year with an impressive run to the final of the Swiss Indoors at Basel. He lost to his old nemesis Federer at the latter event, and as Western Morning News quoted him, he told the Swiss he hoped they’d be playing
nals like that one in the future. Fans hope the same, though it’s seeming increasingly like a fantasy.
The Aussie Open
Because most fans had essentially written him off by the beginning of 2016, and because he didn’t make much noise at the year’s first grand slam event, it may be strange to recall that Nadal was actually considered to be a contender at the Australian Open. According to the preview at Gambling.com, he trailed only four players (Djokovic, Murray, Federer, and Wawrinka) in betting odds to win the whole thing. He was seeded fifth and eyed by some as a potential sleeper of sorts, but then the unthinkable happened. Nadal’s countryman Fernando Verdasco eliminated him in a five-set thriller in the opening round, halting whatever momentum the former champion had gained at the end of 2015 and confirming the beliefs of his many doubters.
At Home On Clay
It’s well known that Rafael Nadal is more comfortable at the French Open at Roland Garros than anywhere else in the world. But the clay courts in general have been incredibly good to him over the years, and if he has a “home court” not named Roland Garros, it’s probably the Monte-Carlo Country Club, where the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters is held annually. Coming into this season, Nadal had won the title there eight times. They all occurred during an uninterrupted streak from 2005 to 2012, more or less coinciding with his era of dominance. In the few years since that streak ended, we’ve stopped looking at Nadal as a sure thing on clay. However, there he was this season as if nothing had ever changed. Nadal won Monte-Carlo in very strong form (albeit aided by the early exit of Djokovic after a surprise loss), and forced the tennis world to ask: has the King of Clay returned?
Roland Garros Next?
Winning the French Open would still be an incredible feat for a player the likes of which Nadal has become over the past few seasons. Then again, we’ve seen glimpses of his old self, and it’s not as if it’s ever been wise to bet against him at Roland Garros. An analysis by Yibada pointed to Nadal’s history, current mindset, and schedule of preparation as reasons that the Frenchman looks to be within his reach once more. And frankly, based on his play at Monte-Carlo, it looks like we ought to consider thinking of him as one of the favourites.
It sounds incredible to say it after so many disappointments, but the King of Clay may be crowned again this June.
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