By Chris Oddo / Friday, December 20, 2013
The tennis, as usual, was sublime, but Rafael Nadal's fierce determination and willingness to surrender to the moment set him apart in 2013.
Photo credit: AP
Now that the 2013 tennis season is officially in the books, we'll be looking back at the seasons of some of the game's most compelling players. Check back each day as we choose a new player to review.
2013 in Review: See the complete list of players
2013 in Review: Rafael Nadal
Titles: Sao Paulo, Acapulco, Indian Wells, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, Montreal, Cincinnati, US Open.
Won his 8th Roland Garros title, becoming the first ATP player to ever own more than seven titles at the same Grand Slam.
Moved into third on the all-time Grand Slam title list when he won the US Open in September for his 13th.
Won five Masters 1000 titles, increasing his record total to 26.
After a seven-month absence, returned to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in October for the first time since July 2011.
Won his 600th career match on March 17 over Juan Martin del Potro.
Reeled off a 26-match hard-court winning streak that was finally ended by Novak Djokovic in Beijing in October.
Won 10 titles in 14 finals and finished as the ATP's year-end No. 1, and he was voted Comeback Player of the Year.
Was forced to withdraw from the Australian Open due to illness.
Dropped the final at Vina del Mar in his first tournament back, losing to Horacio Zeballos in the final.
Dropped his first-round match at Wimbledon to world No. 135 Steve Darcis, which was his first ever first-round defeat in 35 career Grand Slams at that point.
When taken in context, Rafael Nadal's 2013 was really one of the most incredible seasons in recent memory. Nadal's campaign began with whispers of impending doom and, almost miraculously, after the Spaniard made a stunning return from career-threatening knee issues in Chile in February, ended with satisfied screams of ecstasy and whispers of GOATness.
It wasn't just that Nadal gobbled up titles and racked up milestones in 2013, it was the way that he emerged from a giant cluster of depressing black clouds like some magical raptor straight from the sun, all glimmering and glistening, and playing with a renewed vigor that, simply put, was undeniably beautiful.
Nadal's modus operandi as a tennis player is to run hot like a muscle car or a thoroughbred, and because of that fact, many had him pegged as over the hill at the tender age of 26. When he announced his withdrawal from the 2013 Australian Open there were a lot of puzzled scribes in tennisland who couldn't help but prognosticate that the end was near. His game, that combustible concoction of fast-twitch muscles and a high-revving heart, simply was not built to last...
Well, that point was proven to be further and further from the truth as the season wound on and Nadal, playing passionate, shaman-like tennis on hard courts as well as clay courts started racking up improbable victory after improbable victory.
After getting flummoxed by Horacio Zeballos in the Vina del Mar final (that one really brought the critics to roost), Nadal went on a red-line roll that saw him notch titles in Sao Paulo and Indian Wells. Nobody was surprised that Nadal defeated David Nalbandian in Brazil, but his rough-and-tumble victory over Juan Martin del Potro in Indian Wells certainly raised a few eyebrows.
But there were still naysayers, and those naysayers had a field day when Novak Djokovic ended Nadal's 46-match win streak at Monte Carlo in April. The Serb's convincing victory left a wall of doubt surrounding Nadal, with the general consensus being that if Djokovic could win against Nadal in the principality of Monte Carlo, then it surely meant that he could do so at Roland Garros in a few months.
Clearly, Nadal wasn't letting doubt enter the equation. Healthier than he had been in years, he remained aloof, seeking only to produce his very best tennis. Unflappable, poised and impassioned, Nadal would ride into Roland Garros with a 15-match winning streak that saw him net titles in Barcelona, Madrid and Rome, and though he would prove to be challenged by Djokovic in the French Open semifinals, Nadal summoned all his faith during crunch time and valiantly sent Djokovic packing after a heated battle on the terre battue.
Two days later, Nadal would brush aside David Ferrer and become the only man in tennis history to own eight titles at any single Grand Slam. He had come close to falling short, but his implacable will allowed him to prevail.
Has there ever been a player who can dial in his focus in big moments like Nadal? Maybe never. Has there ever been a player so singularly committed to his purpose, so stolidly centered on the moment at hand? Maybe never. Nadal's tennis, as always, was brilliant in 2013, but his steely reserve, his undying commitment to rising to and staying within the moment, was what set him apart.
Nadal doesn't just own the moment on a tennis court, he bleeds the moment. As the pressure rises he reaches an almost inhuman boil, a seething, stammering stampede of passion laced with belief laced with calm. It is transcendent and he is entranced, heart and soul and body and mind, raging with purpose, with passion, and with belief in himself and in his tactics.
Though he suffered a disappointing setback in Wimbledon, Nadal was back in full force on the American hard courts as he became the first man in 10 years to win in Canada, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open, and by the time he had sent Novak Djokovic packing at the US Open final, talk was already bubbling that Nadal had taken a giant leap toward being considered the greatest player in the history of the game.
Clearly, he isn't there yet. But with 13 Grand Slams to his name Nadal has, in one single tumultuous year, erased every single black cloud that ever hovered above his name and replaced it with bright, scintillating sunshine.
At 27, and seemingly in possession of the most colossal will to achieve in all of tennis, is it not simply a matter of time before Nadal nudges up next to Roger Federer in the Grand Slam title category? What could possibly stand between Rafa and four more Slam titles? Knees? Phooey! Been there, done that.
But if 2013 taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves in forecasting a man's doom or a man's coronation. Best bet is to let it play out.
It played out wonderfully for Rafael Nadal in 2013, as he stormed back with a vengeance to reclaim the No. 1 ranking and his place in the GOAT conversation. As 2014 approaches, we can only sit and wonder, what will he do next?