Nadal on his way to being numero uno
During his march to a historic La Decima at the 2017 French Open tournament, Spaniard Rafael Nadal won every single set that he played at the Stade Roland Garros in Paris. In the course of his seven games at the tournament, he dropped only 35 points, the second fewest points dropped by any male (Bjorn Borg dropped just 32 points in the 1978 French Open). Suffice to say, Nadal has time and again proved that he rightfully earned the moniker 'King of Clay'.
This fact is just an icing on the cake that is Nadal's 10th victory in the second major tennis tournament of the calendar year. To throw some light on how significant Nadal's achievement is, one must point out that he is the only player in the Open Era to have won the singles title at a Grand Slam tournament 10 times. The legendary Margaret Court won the Australian Open a record 11 times, but seven of those wins came before the Open Era began in 1968.
The way this year has progressed for Nadal, 2017 could very likely be his annus mirabilis. Of the 10 tournaments (two Majors and eight ATP tournaments), Nadal has won four and finished runner-up in three. Nadal's run of form in the Australian Open in January was impressive, but he lost to a dogged Roger Federer in the final in a nail-biting five-setter.
However, in every clay tournament held after the Australian Open, Nadal has shown that he is a force to reckon with. Prior to the French Open, Nadal participated in the Italian Open in May, where he was knocked out in the quarter-final by Dominic Thiem in straight sets. That loss aside, Nadal has reigned supreme in the three other clay court tournaments, namely Monte-Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Madrid Open. In a majority of his games in these tournaments, he has defeated opponents younger and faster than him. This shows that Nadal has markedly improved his game and has learnt from his mistakes last year.
2016 was, for more reasons than one, a forgettable year for the Spaniard in the singles category. That year's Australian Open produced a shocker when his compatriot Fernando Verdasco sent him packing in the very first round. The four subsequent tournaments were not lucky for him either, as Nadal seemed to be a shadow of his attacking, dominating self. His only singles titles in 2016 included the Monte-Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open. This was also the time when injuries got the better of the then 30-year-old. Nadal was forced to withdraw from the 2016 French Open owing to a left wrist injury, which he suffered during the Madrid Open. The same injury also prevented him from playing in the Wimbledon Championship that year. During the Rio Olympics in August, the third-seeded Nadal was expected to put on a good show. But his luck ran out in the semi-final after eventual silver medal winner Juan Martin del Potro beat him in a nerve-wracking three setter.
The only highlight of 2016 could be considered his victory in the doubles category at the Olympics, where he and fellow countryman Marc Lopez won the gold medal for Spain. The win made him only the second man in the Open Era to have won Olympic gold medals in both singles (2008 Beijing Olympics) and doubles categories.
Every other tournament in 2016 was a disappointment for Nadal and he decided to take some drastic measures. However, the most significant change was not brought upon by him, but by his long time coach and uncle Toni Nadal, who, a few months ago, decided to step down from his nephew's coaching staff. This was the end of an era, as Toni was the man who moulded Nadal into the player that he is known to be today.
Rafael Nadal's association with his uncle began at the tender age of four. Toni himself has described his style of coaching as hard and has admitted that he would sometimes put too much pressure on Rafael because he wanted his nephew to succeed. One of the most admirable qualities that Toni inculcated in his young pupil was to respect one's equipment. Whenever the young Rafael threw his racket in frustration, Toni used to immediately stop coaching him and leave the spot. Toni believed that throwing the racket showed a lack of respect towards those players who could not afford the same equipment and the sport.
Despite his authoritarian attitude, Toni had a strong bond with Rafael. He also never charged his nephew for his coaching services, as he believed that it would make him less of an important figure. Without being paid for giving lessons to the young Rafael, Toni had the freedom to say whatever he wanted without worrying about being fired like a regular coach.
The 27-year long journey may have ended in February, but Toni continues to be an influential figure in Rafael's life even now. Toni now concentrates more on his work at the Rafa Nadal Tennis Academy, which even Rafael has come to appreciate more. After Rafael was honoured at Roland Garros for his victory in the final against Stan Wawrinka, Toni was struggling to hold back his tears. "Yes, there was nostalgia because I prefer so much more to be young. But I'm happy. We are lucky in this life because we receive so much more than we thought we would. Never I thought my nephew can win 10 times here at Roland Garros. It's unbelievable. It's the last time as a coach but I hope I can see more times him playing here," Toni had said.
Toni's exit might have left a gaping hole in Rafael's coaching team if it weren't for a former world No 1 Carlos Moyá - who will soon take over as Rafael's principal coach. During an Australian Open game in January, Nadal had said that Moya's addition to his coaching team was "far from a change." "It's not a change, just an incorporation. One more person on the team that more than anything is a great friend of mine," Nadal had said.
With this partnership seemingly doing wonders for the now 31-year-old, who is second in the ATP men's singles ranking, Nadal could achieve a lot more this year.