“At 31 years old, you’re the oldest player to finish the year at No. 1 in the Emirates ATP Rankings,” an ATP World Tour interviewer told Rafael Nadal, after the Spaniard sealed the year-end No 1 ranking following his win over Hyeon Chung in the ongoing ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Paris.
“Ever?” Nadal asked.
“Yes – in history.”
Being the oldest male player to finish the year as No 1 is but one of the many milestones that Nadal has ticked this week. He also now holds the record for the longest span between year-end No 1 finishes – nine years.
Nadal has now finished the year as the World No 1 on four occasions – 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2017. Along with the undoubted longevity of his time at the top, this also showcases how he has achieved so much in tennis, despite being intermittently marred by injuries.
Of all the players that have finished the year as No 1 on four or more occasions, Nadal is the only one who hasn’t done so in back-to-back years. In fact, there is a growing progression in the gaps between the years that he finishes at the top of the men’s game.
Nadal has made a career out of the phoenix-from-ashes cycle, by rebounding from injuries time and time again.
After winning the French and Wimbledon double in 2008, along with the Olympics Gold, Nadal was supposed to dominate in the coming years – a prediction that looked like a formality once he had won the Australian Open 2009, beating Roger Federer in the final.
Along with the undoubted longevity of his time at the top, this also showcases how Nadal has achieved so much in tennis, despite being intermittently marred by injuries
At the French Open, a shock Round of 16 loss against Robin Soderling, followed by an injury withdrawal at Wimbledon, coupled with Federer winning both those majors, meant that the Swiss had returned to the summit and question marks slashed over post-injury Nadal.
In 2010, Nadal became the first player in the Open Era to win majors on all three surfaces in a single year, as he swept the French and Wimbledon, and won his first US Open to complete the Career Grand Slam. Again, he looked unstoppable.
In 2011, Novak Djokovic happened. In a stretch that began from Indian Wells 2011 to the Australian Open 2012, the Serb beat Nadal in seven consecutive finals – including three successive majors – to firmly announce himself as the world’s best.
Nadal stopped the rot at Roland Garros 2012, but a second round defeat against Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon followed by an injury-enforced absence for the rest of the year meant that the Spaniard was firmly out of the picture, as Djokovic and Andy Murray took the centre stage.
In 2013, after being written off yet again, Nadal went on to win 10 titles – the most in a single year for him. These included the French and US Open – the latter being the culmination of his sweep of the North American hard court season as he won Montreal and Cincinnati as well, eventually finishing the year as number 1 for the third time.
And then the cycle repeated itself.
When Nadal faced off against Stanislas Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open final, he was looking for his 14th major to equal Pete Sampras and second one Down Under, which would give him the second career slam – winning each major at least twice.
In the 12 previous matches between Nadal and Wawrinka, the Swiss had not even taken a set off the Spaniard. And yet a gung ho Wawrinka, along with Nadal tweaking his back in the second set, meant that the then Swiss No 2 won his first major at the expense of the World No 1.
While Nadal won the 2014 French Open, he didn’t win any Grand Slam for the next three years as both major silverware and the summit of the rankings eluded him.
At the start of this year, the fourth cycle began. And even though he lost the Australian Open final to Federer, the run in Melbourne gave him the push to pull off perhaps his most dominant clay season yet. The French Open win – La Decima for Nadal – came as both Djokovic and Murray continued to struggle.
Gilles Muller stopped a resurgent Nadal on Wimbledon’s grass, with Federer winning the title for a record eighth time. This meant that despite over a decade of intense rivalry between the two, 2017 was shaping up to be the first year where the two would be a part of a veritable race for the No 1 ranking.
The North American hard court season was always going to be decisive. Neither Federer nor Nadal winning in Montreal or Cincinnati meant that the Spaniard unseated Murray as World No 1, which he further reaffirmed with his third US Open and 16th major overall.
After winning Beijing and being the runner-up to Federer at the Shanghai Masters, Nadal only needed a match win in the final two tournaments of the year to confirm himself as the year-end No 1 after the Swiss withdrew from the Paris Masters.
For the fourth time, Nadal has battled all his demons to reach the very top of the game. Few would argue that the absence of the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka from the second half of the season, slightly tarnishes that achievement. But one could argue that they too have benefited from Nadal’s absence in the past years.
Similarly, others would claim that considering Federer has beaten Nadal in all four of their meetings this year, the World No 2 is perhaps ‘more deserving’ of being crowned the best. But then again, it was Nadal who had Federer’s number from 2004 to 2009 – five of these six years Federer finished as No 1. Also, Federer didn’t play Nadal at all on clay this year, which while proving to be a wise move for his assault on silverware, also helped him sweep the Spaniard this year.
The beauty of the tennis ranking system is that the point tally never lies. By opting to sit out many of the tournaments, Federer has actually won more titles than Nadal. But the latter has more points, by slugging it out all year, on every surface, bagging quite a few runners-up finishes along with the titles that he has won.
But yes, even with the World No 1 ranking in the bag, Nadal would give absolutely everything he has left in the tank to win the World Tour Finals later this month for the very first time in his career. If he does so, while beating Federer on the way, that would perfectly round off the historic year.