Rafael Nadal’s ATP Ranking top spot has been saved by Novak Djokovic’s wrist injury. The world no 1 was close to being pushed off the top by his in-form rival. The wrist injury to his main rival could not have come at a better time for Nadal as he enters the Clay season.
The Clay season is Nadal’s favorite, and most profitable part of the season when it comes to ranking points. The eight time Roland Garros Champion is arguably the best clay court player in history and, even in seasons when his form on other surfaces has been questionable, he has always managed to walk away with a haul of big clay court titles.
Novak Djokovic is no slouch on the red stuff either. In 2011 it was Djokovic who inflicted rare defeats in ATP 1000 finals in Madrid and Rome on Nadal. And while a victory at Roland Garros has eluded him, Djokovic had the better of Nadal for a set and a half in the final in 2012. The rain saved Nadal that day. Then, in 2013, Djokovic led Nadal by a break in the fifth set before nerves got the better of him.
This season Djokovic admitted he had put too much pressure on himself when it came to Roland Garros in previous seasons. This year, he said, he was going to be more relaxed about it. He will have plenty of time to sit back with his wrist injury. While it is reported he will be back in time for Madrid, nothing is confirmed.
Meanwhile, Nadal can do anything but relax. For a man who had spent more than 100 weeks at the top of the rankings, staying there, with all its prestige, will be something he will be desperate to do. The look of pain on his face as he accepted his runner-up trophy this season in Melbourne shows just how much Nadal does not like coming second best. And nothing less than that attitude could be expected of such a great champion.
However, Nadal is not having it all his way this clay season. A rare defeat to David Ferrer last week in Monte Carlo sent out the message that Nadal, who has failed to win a title about ATP 500 level this season, was even more vulnerable than had been thought. To put it in perspective, Nadal has won Monte Carlo eight times and was last year’s runner up to Djokovic. A formidable record. And he had only lost once to Ferrer on clay, back in 2004.
Yesterday, in Barcelona, a tournament he has won eight times also, Nadal struggled to get through to the third round, beating compatriot Albert Ramos 7-5, 6-4 in close to two hours. Ramos pushed Nadal all the way and only faltered when serving to stay in the second set, dropping his serve to love. Nadal’s 40th consecutive win in his home tournament was anything but encouraging for himself or his fans.
With Nadal struggling so much on his most prolific surface, the idea of Djokovic overtaking him in the ATP rankings, and even beating him in Roland Garros was not far-fetched. But with Djokovic on the sidelines, unable to practice, the Serb’s confidence will be a little shaky when he returns and he may not leave from where he left off, winning titles in Miami and Indian Wells and enjoying a 16 match winning streak before Federer beat him in the Monte Carlo semi-finals.
How Nadal takes advantage of his opponent’s absence to defend his points and his tournament wins will be interesting to see. More interesting will be if any other players can take advantage of an out of sorts Nadal. But with the pressure of an in-form Djokovic chasing him now out-of-the-way, Nadal has some breathing space to get his head together and try to find the form that has earned him the ATP top spot for the last 29 weeks, a run he, no doubt, would like to see continue for a while longer.
Commentary by Christian Deverille