At the end of 2013, things, tennis wise at least, could not have looked much better for Rafael Nadal. While his defeat in the ATP World Tour Finals to Novak Djokovic may not have been a dream ending, it did not distract from what had otherwise been arguably his best season ever.
Two slams at Roland Garros and the US Open, five Masters 1000, three of them on hard courts no less, three other titles, and the year end number one ranking were all Nadal’s. And all of that after coming back from a seven month injury lay off in February.
And what made it even more impressive was that Nadal came back to the tour in 2013 stronger than when he left. Before taking leave from the tour after Wimbledon 2012 and his shock early exit to Lukas Rosol, Nadal had won the French Open but had lost the three previous slam finals to rival Novak Djokovic. And those losses were three of seven to the Serbian in finals from 2011-2012.
Those kind of losses to your closets rivals hurt as badly as a knee inury that puts you out the game for seven months. But Nadal overcame both and reasserted himself as the game’s best player in the world, beating Djokovic three times on his return, and two of those times in important Grand slam matches.
Nadal, though, has a somewhat worrying career pattern. He rarely follows up a great season with another. In 2008 he ruled the tennis world, only to suffer his only ever loss at Roland Garros in 2009 and miss much of the season to injury.
A similar thing happened in 2011. After a great 2010, Nadal was then pushed off the top by a Djokovic who has as effective a strategy to beat Nadal as Nadal has when it comes to Federer.
This season, Nadal has also failed to follow up on the glory of the previous one. Nadal lost in the Australian Open final, aggravating his back in the process, and has not managed to win an ATP 1000 title yet.
However, with the clay court season, his best part of the year and his self-professed favorite part of the year, coming up, Nadal’s predicament is not that worrying. He is still number 1, and he is still making Major finals and ATP 1000 finals. But he is not winning them.
And while the tournaments he does win- Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome and Roland Garros- are coming up, there is an old foe waiting to wrestle them off him. That old foe is none other than Novak Djokovic.
The Serbian leads the ATP race for 2014, has just won the Indian Wells-Miami double, and has beaten Nadal in their last three finals. He has also beaten Nadal in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, and threatened him at Roland Garros in 2012 and 2013. And the Serbian is talking of his relaxed approach to Roland Garros this year, the one Major to elude him. And a relaxed Djokovic is a scary prospect for Nadal.
Nadal will have to defend as many points as he can on the red clay to keep Djokovic at bay when it comes to the No. 1 ranking. The Serb leads the 2014 race to London and while he is second in the rankings and has Monte Carlo to defend, he lost in his first match last season in Madrid and then in the quarter-finals in Rome. And, the Serbian failed to make his seeded position at Roland Garros after drawing Nadal in the semis.
Djokovic should have won that match. He was in a winning position, leading by a break in the fifth, and he has the game to beat Nadal on Clay. Had he held his nerve, he would have made the final against Ferrer and been the heavy favorite. But, by his recent own admission, Djokovic took matters too seriously.
This year, it could be Nadal doing just that. With his ranking at stake, his favorite Major, too, Nadal, one of the fiercest competitors in the game’s history, will need to play his best tennis to save what has so far been anything other than a number 1 season.