Rafael Nadal aims to fill gap in resume in London’s last hurrah
Nadal: “The experience here in London has been one of the best without a doubt”, Rublev: “Rafa is one of the best players in the history of tennis—but I have nothing to lose”
This time a year ago, in front of a packed O2 arena, Rafael Nadal lifted the year-end No1 trophy for the fifth time.
And with that, he joined a very exclusive club: Only Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Jimmy Connors had ended a season at No1 five times, with just one man doing so six times, Pete Sampras.
What followed, no-one could have predicted for 2020, a global pandemic that saw tennis shut down alongside almost every activity around the world.
The calendar, of course, was decimated—no Olympics, no Wimbledon, and only three Masters out of the nine making an appearance. And who would ever have expected to see the French Open played in October, after the US Open, and all without any fans?
Yet even amid this back-to-front, truncated season, Nadal continued to tick off new milestones. At the start of 2020, he passed 200 weeks at No1, reaching 209 before the Australian Open champion Djokovic overtook him—and the Serb has gone on to match Sampras’s six year-end No1s
Nadal elected not to travel to New York for the first tournaments following lock-down, instead focusing on his beloved clay. And it paid off with another Roland Garros record, his 13th title—and without dropping a set into the bargain.
That in turn added another record: He matched Federer’s unparalleled men’s milestone with his 20th Major.
But could he go on to match Djokovic’s record 39 Masters titles at one of the few top-level tournaments he had yet to win, Paris Bercy?
The answer was no. The Spaniard made the semis, but even so, more milestones came and went, including his 1,000th match-win. He also overtook the Connors record for consecutive weeks ranked in the top 10, a run that began in the summer of 2005, when Nadal went unbeaten in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros to reach No3.
That spring of 2005 pointed to Nadal’s brilliance on the red stuff, and he has notched up the most clay titles in the Open era, 60. But lest anyone suggest he is a one-trick pony, he has won five Majors on hard courts, and has notched up more hard-court match-wins than on clay, 482 to 445.
However, as he comes to a deserted London O2 arena for what should have been a celebration of the ATP Finals’ 50th anniversary, Nadal still has one notable hole in his resume, this end-of-year finale.
Perhaps this year, though, that is about to change. For Nadal has invariably come into the closing indoor stages of the season either injured or fatigued. For example, in the last three years, his Paris Masters intentions have ended either in withdrawal or retirement.
For the ATP Finals, he has qualified every year since 2005—indeed the most consecutive qualifications by any man—but has missed the event six times with end-of-season injury, and even had his campaign last year blighted by injury: He did not make it past the round-robin phase.
But in this shortened and distorted pandemic season, 37 tournaments have been cancelled, and Nadal has played only three events since winning Acapulco in February. And that all means that the Spaniard has been able to preserve his energy and fitness right up to the season’s conclusion.
So could Nadal’s discomfort on indoor hard courts—and he has won only one, at his home Masters in Madrid 15 years ago—be overcome by these special 2020 circumstances?
When he faced the world’s media, in the now familiar Zoom press conference format, he explained why he thought he had enjoyed so little success indoors.
“We can find excuses or reasons but at the end of the day the numbers are the numbers. I think I play less indoors without a doubt if we compare indoor to outdoors in my tennis career, but at the same time it is true [that I’ve been less successful indoors].
“There are reasons: Indoors have not been an ideal surface for my tennis game since the beginning of my career. I think I started to play a little bit better the last couple of years than at the beginning of my career without a doubt, but that’s the numbers and I can’t excuse or say something different. I hope to change that this week.”
Had his semi-final run in Paris Bercy helped with his preparation? He agreed.
“I tried to fight hard every single match I played in Bercy. I have played already four matches on this surface and hopefully that can help me. But it remains for me to practise here to prepare for the first challenge in [Andrey] Rublev.”
The 23-year-old Russian, playing in his first ATP Finals, has come a long way since his only previous match against Nadal. That was at the US Open in 2017, and Rublev had reached his first Major quarter-final. But he won just five games against the then No1—and the Spaniard went on to win the title.
This year, Rublev added five titles to his resume, with a season-leading 40 match-wins, including back-to-back 500s in St Petersburg and Vienna, and he also made the quarters of both the US and French Opens. Of his first match in his first ATP Finals, Rublev said:
“I mean [Rafa] is one of the best mental athletes in sport—I mean of course he’s one of the best athletes in general, but if we are talking about all sport, it is mental… He is one of the best players in the history of tennis. [But] I have nothing to lose… In the end, I will try to do my best.”
Certainly there has already been no shortage of practice on Nadal’s side, and he went on to train with Djokovic after his press conference. But then, bottled up in the adjacent hotel, there are few alternatives to the tennis treadmill. As he pointed out:
“The hotel is next to the O2. We even cannot walk from the hotel, which is just 200 metres away!”
Such has been the ‘bubble’ life of tennis since the summer, but every player is only too aware of how fortunate they have been to have the opportunity to return to their sport. There may be no fans to cheer them on, and there will be precious little social interaction during their 10 or so days at the O2. Just eight small singles teams and eight equally small doubles teams, and a skeleton staff of media, photographers and admin staff to fill the vast spaces.
Nadal summed it up:
“We are lucky to be able to keep playing our sport, that is the only thing I can say. I can’t be negative, just say thanks to the ATP, to the tournaments for making it happen in these challenging conditions. Playing with no crowd in this amazing stadium is not perfect, but as I said before, we can play tennis so we cannot complain at all.”
And while he has yet to win this most prestigious of ATP titles, he has nothing but praise for its London residency—plus hopes for the tournament’s future home.
“I think the experience here in London has been one of the best without a doubt. The atmosphere, the organisation has been great, the event has been very popular around the world.
“It is not fair to finish the Finals here without crowds, but we need to move, to promote the sport around the world. So I congratulate London for these 12 years, and I expect to have another great event in Turin.”
Nadal tops a Group London 2020 with Rublev, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas. He opens his campaign on Sunday against Rublev at 8pm.