Rafael Nadal: the hard road to 1,000
Rafael Nadal booked his place in the fourth round of the Miami Masters in his 1,000th career match, and said: "It’s beautiful news for me"
By any measure, what 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal has achieved since playing his first main-tour tennis match is exceptional.
The Spaniard yesterday notched up his 1,000th match, which took him into the fourth round of the prestigious Miami Masters. And marking his 822nd win, his 37th in Miami in his 13th appearance at the tournament, it was achieved with signature Nadal grit.
He lost the first set, 0-6 to a blazing Philipp Kohlschreiber, but refused to be fazed, and he hit back to play with ever more punishing tennis to subdue the German, 6-2, 6-3. By the final set, the Spaniard was hitting 90 percent of his first serves into play, won all 19 of them, and dropped only one point on his second serve.
Just two active players have notched up 1,000 matches, Roger Federer at the age of 35 and David Ferrer, who turns 35 next week. Nadal is not yet 31 so, taking into account the number of times and number of tournaments when Nadal has been side-lined by injury, his achievement is all the more impressive.
Miami’s No5 seed touched on this very subject when asked about his latest milestone: “A 1,000 matches is a good number, no? It’s good news for me because it means that my career has been very long. Those years, people were saying that I would have a very short career, so that’s already beautiful news.
“I remember very well my first match because I played it in Mallorca: It was my first victory on the ATP Tour and it meant a lot.”
That match was indeed in his home of Mallorca, a rare main-tour venture in a sea of Future events in 2002. And it proved to be not only Nadal’s first match but his first win, over No81, Ramon Delgado. Nadal was ranked 762—and he would not turn 16 for another two months.
This was, then, a shot across the bows to the rest of the tour about the precocious talent and physicality that the power-packed left-hander would develop in the coming years.
By 2003, and routinely making at least the finals in Challenger tournaments, he would play his first Masters match—which he also won—in Monte-Carlo.
A couple of months later, just after turning 17, he played his first Grand Slam match: It was at Wimbledon, and he won that too. He broke the top 50 by the end of the year and went on to his first ATP final at the start of the next, in Auckland.
2004 went on to become a year of more significant landmarks. In Miami, he beat then No1 Roger Federer for the first time, and got the first of his 69 titles in Sopot in August. He would finally join Spain’s Davis Cup team to score the key win over Andy Roddick sealing the title for Spain. However, the first significant injury problem reared its head.
By now, Nadal had played in three consecutive Majors, but would have to miss Roland Garros—along with all the clay Masters and subsequently Wimbledon—because of an ankle injury.
Fully fit, though, and all Nadal’s early promise began to coalesce: Witness his barnstorming 2005.
Still a teenager, Nadal began the season ranked No50 and ended it with 11 titles at No2. Along the way, he began record-breaking runs in Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros.
His clay dominance continued in July, but he also won his first hard-court title, the Montreal Masters no less, before going on to win indoors in Beijing and Madrid. He was thus proving that he was no one-trick pony, though his superlative clay-court tennis became a story in itself.
In 2006, he even reached the final on Wimbledon’s grass, and did the same the next year, beaten only by the equally superlative grass-court skill of Federer. Yet Nadal went on to conquer that Everest, too, claiming the title in 2008.
That victory would form part of another ground-breaking year: The French-Wimbledon double, Olympic gold in Beijing, and the No1 ranking after trailing Federer for over three years.
But was the punishing, pounding baseline tennis at which Nadal excelled beginning to take its toll? By now, he regularly wore strapping around his knees, had to withdraw from 2008’s Masters Final in Shanghai, and in 2009, despite winning the Australian Open, he missed Dubai with a knee injury, lost at the French Open for the first time in four years, and withdrew from Wimbledon with tendonitis.
However, the slip from No1 to No4 at the start of 2010 served merely to whet Nadal’s determination. The season would bring seven titles, most significantly his first at the US Open to complete his career—and the Golden—Slam. He reclaimed the No1 ranking for a full year, only to face more knee problems in 2012, when he would forego both the Olympics and the entire US Open swing.
Now back down to No4, this most resilient of men bounced back yet again in 2013 to win 10 titles from 14 finals and, yes, get back to No1. What is more, the infamous Nadal knees now seemed to be holding up.
Along with all his rehab and conditioning work during the long months away from competition, Nadal was clearly looking at on-court ways to ease the wear and tear. He generated more impact on his serve, used more aggressive tactics, and the modest evolution worked: Rarely does he now wear knee supports. How unlucky, then, that Nadal was instead hit by a wrist injury in 2014, and again missed the whole US swing. To make matters worse, he had surgery for appendicitis at the end of the year.
Little wonder, perhaps, that Nadal struggled to regain his form and his confidence in 2015. Nor that he would also find his way back to winning ways on clay in 2016: His ninth Masters in Monte-Carlo backed by his ninth Barcelona title. Then, close to tears in Paris, he was forced to withdraw during the first week of the French Open with more wrist problems.
Yet still Nadal rises to each setback. Last summer, he was determined not to miss the Olympics, fell only one win short of a bronze medal, and won doubles gold, but would play just 10 more matches before pulling the plug on 2016 to rehabilitate his wrist.
The ever-open Spaniard revealed something of those recent trials as he launched into this year for his superb final finish at the Australian Open. He was, he said, injury free, but pain? “[Smiling] Pain-free is a long time ago.”
“Being honest and realistic, after Roland Garros [last year], the only tournament I played with OK conditions, not 100% conditions, was the US Open.
“Because at the Olympics, even if it was a great event, I still had a lot of pain on the wrist. Then I had an oedema on the hand. Was so difficult to play. I played because I didn’t want to stop again. I wanted to keep trying.
“I went to Beijing and Shanghai with too much pain. So, during the last seven months, I played just a couple of [pain-free] matches.
“[But] if I don’t believe that I can be competitive, and when I mean ‘competitive’, is fighting for the things that I fought for in the last 10 years, I would probably be playing golf or fishing at home. If I am here, is because I believe.”
He went on to reach the final in Acapulco, lost to Federer again in Indian Wells, and showed all the fight and passion of that teenager of 15 years ago in resisting Kohlschreiber in his 1,000 match.
Among his 28 Masters titles, Nadal has yet to win in Miami, yet one thing is certain. His determination to do so will be undimmed by reaching, and losing, four previous finals in Florida. As long as the passion endures and the body allows, he will fight to the last.
Nada next plays the unseeded Nicolas Mahut.