The Return of Rafa: What Nadal’s Recovery Means for Men’s Tennis

After missing six months due to injury, Rafael Nadal has won three consecutive tournaments. How will his reemergence affect the landscape of the ATP Tour?

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Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates after defeating Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina to win the men's final match of the 2013 BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on March 17.

There are few certainties in the sports world: gold medals for Usain Bolt, a few good upsets in the NCAA tournament, endless discussion of all things Tim Tebow. And Rafael Nadal winning the French Open as long as he’s healthy.

Nadal has seven French Open titles and is 52-1 lifetime at Roland Garros, his lone loss coming in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament against Robin Soderling while struggling with knee ailments that have followed him for much of his career. His dominance on clay—especially on the outskirts of Paris—is undisputed and historic. In the 12 years since he turned pro in 2001, the Spaniard has lost only 20 matches on clay, while winning 266 (a .930 winning percentage).

As recently as late January, however, there were doubts about whether Nadal would successfully defend—or even attempt to defend—his 2012 title at Roland Garros. The 26-year-old pro had not played a professional match since losing in the second round at Wimbledon nearly six months earlier. First it was the ever-troublesome knees, then a stomach bug knocked him out of the Australian Open in mid-January. Nadal fell out of the top four in the ATP rankings for the first time since 2005 (the same year he won his first French Open title). Pundits began to wonder aloud whether this was the beginning of the end for the “King of Clay.”

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But then he got back on the court. After losing in the finals of his first tournament of the 2013 season, Nadal has won 14 consecutive matches and three titles. The first two titles came on clay (the latter of which was capped by a commanding 6-0, 6-2 win over fellow Spaniard David Ferrer, who had taken Nadal’s place in the top four), but the third—last weekend’s ATP World Tour Masters 1000 at Indian Wells, Calif.— marked his first hard court tournament win in nearly two years. On his way to the million dollar purse, Nadal defeated Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro (in the final) and longtime rival Roger Federer.

Nadal’s reemergence drastically changes the landscape for men’s tennis. Prior to the Return of Rafa, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were poised to continue their battle for sustained supremacy (the two have squared off in the finals of the last two Grand Slam tournaments), with Federer still nearly as dangerous as ever. When healthy, Nadal is not just the favorite at any clay court tournament he enters, but also a force to be reckoned with on other surfaces—even the hard court he so greatly loathes.

Though it may seem premature to declare the winner of the 2013 French Open two months before the tournament even starts, there’s little to suggest any other player on tour is in position to disrupt Nadal’s clay court dominance. Federer has only won the title at Roland Garros once (in 2009 when he didn’t have to go through Nadal). Djokovic made his first French Open final last year, only to fall to Nadal in four relatively painless sets. Murray has never advanced beyond the semis in Paris and even last year, in the midst of the best season of his career, he lost to Ferrer in the quarterfinals. As usual, Nadal’s greatest competition will likely be his own knees.

After Roland Garros, however, where the season goes is anyone’s guess. Last year marked the first time since 2003 that men’s tennis has had four different Grand Slam winners (Djokovic at the Aussie, Nadal at the French, Federer at Wimbledon and Murray in Flushing). This year could see similar parity. But if Nadal is truly healthy and can continue his success beyond the comfy confines of clay, the season could end up bearing a striking resemblance to the 2010 season when Federer won the Australian Open title before Nadal claimed the year’s final three Slam titles. This time around, he’ll have Djokovic and Murray standing in his way as well. However the summer turns out, one thing is certain: it’s good to have Rafa back.

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