INJURY is an inevitable part of every sport. Comeback of the athlete is what follows — well, sometimes. A comeback to the top level is hailed as one hell of a task. The lucky ones are able to make a comeback in the league of competition. Some do make a comeback and get back into the groove like they never left. And then there is Rafael Nadal, who has taken injury hits and come back to the top level like it was an off-season break. His injuries and success have always been parallels that oddly meet at certain intervals before going parallel once more.
2015 marked the worst year in Nadal’s career in many statistical aspects. What was even more horrifying was his self admitted mental block during pressure conditions. The Spaniard was well known for his mental prowess under tough conditions that we all witnessed during his golden run until 2015 saw a shaky Nadal. He lost matches from commanding positions and gave away points that usually belonged to him. His US Open defeat to Fognini was the lowest point of the season where he squandered a 2 set and a break lead, eventually being eliminated in the 3rd round. His upset picture in the tunnel took the social media and fan pages by storm. Nadal changed things a bit, showed improvement and played positive tennis to reach a few finals and semi-finals in the subsequent tournaments. He was undefeated in his group in the world tour finals, before eventually losing in the semi-final to his nemesis Novak Djokovic.
2016 saw a resurrection in his form, despite losing in the 1st round at the Australian open, he displayed good aggressive tennis in Indian Wells and most importantly, looked very positive mentally, played risky shots when needed and escaped tight corners during rallies and crucial points. Clay season opened with him winning a record 9th title at Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. Two solid performances in the 1st two rounds at the Roland Garros raised hopes, only to be dumped within hours when Rafa announced his withdrawal from the tournament due to a left wrist injury when the wrist producing those heavy topspin forehands deserted him. He skipped Wimbledon as well due to recovery time. Rio Olympics saw the vintage Nadal, who came back from the injury and amazed everyone with his performance, winning a goldin men’s doubles, alongside Marc Lopez in spite of playing two matches (singles and doubles) each day, and making it to the semi finals in the singles competition. Rest of the season was below average with him eventually calling curtains to the season after Beijing due to the recurring wrist injury.
How do the last couple of seasons lead up to 2017?
The 2017 season for Nadal is much about completing two kinds of comebacks — the physical comeback, due to the wrist injury that disturbed his rhythm when he looked set for a fight. And, the mental comeback, which he pretty much accomplished in 2016 itself, but couldn’t really exploit due to injury concerns.
2017 also has some other significant factors that are appealing to the fans and the Spaniard’s season as well.
First and foremost, it is the addition of fellow Spaniard and former world no. 1 Carlos Moya in his coaching team. A change that was very much anticipated — it is likely to provide an outside view to the problems that many experts thought was much needed for Rafa. Reactions have been mostly been positive given that Moya had a successful stint with Milos Raonic this year which saw his ranking reaching a career best no. 3. Milos improved his return game very well which was a key to his success. So, Moya qualifies as one who knows what areas to work on with a certain player. However, Rafa has a completely different skill set, and it would be interesting to see if Moya can use his expertise under different circumstances.
Another aspect is the fall in form of Novak Djokovic. Tennis is a strange sport. Sometimes a series of wins is not as effective as one win against a certain opponent. Nadal has struggled miserably against Novak, has not even won a set against him since the French Open 2014 final. From here, things may work in two ways — one where Novak fails to reach higher rounds in some tournaments which may indirectly benefit Rafa. But if we do end up witnessing a Djokovic-Nadal showdown, and the Spaniard is able to pull off a victory exploiting the recent slump in the Serbian’s form, it can act as a catalyst in his whole performance and overall morale. And given the current ranking scenarios, a good run in Melbourne will improve his ranking, thus enhancing the possibility of witnessing quarter or semi-finals between them as both would likely be reaching those stages due to their rankings being inside 2 and 8.
Comeback on the Cards for Rafael Nadal?
Now to take note of the ATP calendar, the March- June window has historically been the most rewarding for Nadal. He is a 3 time Indian wells champion, 4 times Miami finalist and the undoubted King of Clay. The slow hard courts in Coachella Valley and Crandon Park aid his style of game. So, he is likely to do well there and that will be the key to his confidence and rankings later on in the season. Clay season was pretty good for him in 2016 and if 2017 follows suit, he will be a leading contender for the Roland Garros. Earning as many points as possible in the first half of the season is the key to success for the 14 time grand slam champion which he should, given his tremendous experience, fighting ability and the recent success at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
A governing factor to derail his much anticipated comeback however, is the rise of the young guns as well. 2016 witnessed a promising rise in the level of the young brigade. Alexender Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, David Goffin, Lucas Pouille have shown quality improvement and have proved their potential to challenge the veterans on the tour. They all are currently ranked in tricky slots and they are likely to face Nadal in early stages of a tournament. How they fare against the heavy topspin of the Spaniard will decide their fate as well as Nadal’s. The generation battle is likely to be hot and fascinating.
What to expect?
Considering all the factors, 2017 as a whole looks very promising for the tennis fans with the change in rankings, rise of young guns and the return of Roger Federer. As for Rafa loyalists, there are reasons to be happy and to look forward to the season. The 14 time slam winner himself looks very positive as he was quoted as saying, “I am going to die to be ready again to compete for everything. I’m going to work more than ever to try to make that happen and I have big determination to put me in a position to fight again for important things”.
Never before has anyone witnessed the Matador of Spain so much geared up and being verbal about his preparations and upcoming challenges. He generally likes to keep it simple, so if the man himself is speaking, it is indeed a huge positive. He looks set and in the zone to try to win slams again. After the lacklustre form that he has had recently, this kind of roar was required for the fans and tennis world in general. Expect him to lift one or two important trophies and win some good matches against top ranked opponents. Some banana forehand winners down the line will definitely be a sight for the fanatics to savour. Gear up, folks!