Rafael Nadal enters 2014 on the back of the greatest comeback in the history of tennis, and looking to tie Pete Sampras on 14 slams with victory at this month’s Australian Open.
In 1997, Andre Agassi sustained a serious wrist injury that threatened to end his career. The American, at that point a three-time grand slam winner with a Wimbledon, US and Australian Open to his credit, was the biggest box office draw in tennis, and more famous for his off-court relationship with actress Brooke Shields and his extravagant on-court attire than for his actual game, which was as it turned out, pretty damn good.
After a horrific season that saw him exit in the first round of virtually every tournament he entered, Agassi’s world ranking dropped to 141, and he took some time out to recuperate. (It was during this break from tennis that Agassi indulged in his now notorious “crystal meth” phase, a period of his life in which he speaks about at length in his autobiography Open). When Agassi returned in late 1997, he did so by entering a series of challenger events to get his fitness and timing back, before starting his comeback in 1998 in a small tournament in Australia, where he was beaten in the final by an unknown 16-year-old prodigy named Lleyton Hewitt.
However, Agassi persevered, and after several stops and starts, eventually made the long road back to ultimately winning a French Open, a U.S. Open and three more Australian Opens and in 2000 finished the year as world number one.
As a longtime tennis fan, until 2013, Andre Agassi’s comeback was the greatest that I’d ever seen. Normally, when a player is injured to the extent that they are forced out of the game for several months, they seldom come back as good as they were and never better. All-time greats like John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg had breaks from the game for psychological reasons, yet they too were never the same when they returned.
When Nadal returned in February last year after six months away from the game due to extreme tendonitis in his knees, the tennis scribes had their laptops ready to report on the demise of a great player. Like Agassi, he began his comeback by reaching the final of a small tournament in South America and losing to a virtual unknown. After several more low-key events away from the public glare, Nadal made his return to the big-time at the ATP Masters in Indian Wells, on the very hard courts that had largely been the cause of his chronic knee problems.
Surely – we all thought – this was a foolhardy move. The European clay court season was just weeks away, why risk his recovery on the brutality of cement?
And then we saw him play.
So impressive was Nadal in his first major tournament back that respected Sky TV pundit Barry Cowan claimed that Nadal was “playing better than ever”. At the time many dismissed Barry’s remarks as somewhat exuberant, but as it turned out, and not for the first time - he was actually dead right; Nadal was playing better than ever.
Standing closer to the baseline and taking the ball much earlier than normal, and then moving in and looking to end points faster, Nadal’s new tactics were devised by his longtime coach and uncle Tony Nadal, and designed initially to lessen the wear-and-tear on his knees that his scrambling, defensive style was causing. It was certainly effective; Nadal reached an incredible 14 finals in 2013, winning ten of them, including victories at the French and US Opens, taking his Grans Slam haul to 13.
The Nadal of 2013 bears only a passing physical resemblance to the musclebound brute that first exploded onto the world-wide scene in 2005. Nadal is now much lighter, serves faster and harder, and expends less energy. His backhand is still the model of consistency, and he can flatten it out and hit it with more pace. His forehand is arguably the single most effective weapon the sport of tennis has ever seen, and such is the Spaniards agility, he always will try and run around his backhand and smash forehand winners at every opportunity.
As is typical of Nadal, after the U.S. Open, his performances in the final quarter of the year tailed off somewhat. He lost more games from October until the season ending ATP World Tour Championships in London than he had in the previous eight months of the year.
Nevertheless, Nadal, who has often flopped badly in the ATP Tour Finals, looked impressive as he reached the final, but was well beaten by his arch nemesis Djokovic in straight sets. The Nadal v Djokovic rivalry has now played out over more matches than any other in ATP history, with the head-to-head currently reading 22 – 17 in the Spaniards favor dating back to their first meeting in 2006.
Surprisingly, the two have met only once at the Australian Open, and that was in their epic 2012 semifinal that Djokovic won in five sets.
Nadal’s only win in the Australian Open came in 2009, when he defeated Roger Federer in an emotional five-set final that saw Federer break down in tears after failing to break Pete Sampras´s then record of fourteen slams in front of his hero Rod Laver. But for the more hard-core tennis fan, the tournament will always be remembered for the semifinal between Nadal and fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, one of the most ferociously fought five-set matches ever played.
Verdasco never played better than in that match, and his howitzer-like forehand was the major cause of his 95 winners. Nadal was forced to scramble and defend for all he was worth to triumph. It was matches just like the one against Verdasco that would ultimately take such a toll on his knees - but hopefully, with his new more economical style - will be a thing of the past.
Nadal is second favourite to win his second Australian Open title, behind Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic is the clear and deserving favourite to win what would be a record-setting fifth Australian Open, but if the man standing opposite him on the other side of the net on the final day of the tournament is a certain Rafael Nadal, he may have to wait another day to make history.