Seven Signs Rafa Nadal Is Back- and the Two Signs We Are Waiting For
The answer to the question of whether or not Rafa Nadal is back to his Roland Garros winning best was clearer after his Barcelona win last weekend. The Tennis Review looks at seven signs from Nadal’s play the last couple of months which tell us he is back, and looks ahead to two more signs we are waiting for.
1. Saved Match Point Versus Zverev in Indian Wells
Prior to Indian Wells 2016, Nadal had suffered some tough losses to the ATP’s Next Generation- to Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon 2014, and to Borna Coric at Basel 2014.
Alexander Zverev looked like he was going to inflict another one on the Spaniard when he held match point in the Indian Wells last sixteen. Nadal, though, hung in, fought off Zverev’s match point and then went on to take the match.
A year ago, Nadal might not have had the self-belief to pull off that kind of comeback over such an in-form player, but this season he does have it, and that comeback win over Zvevev got the first rumblings going that the old Nadal might be coming back.
Watch the video below to see Nadal winning his match point versus Sasha Zverev in Indian Wells.
2. Held set point Versus Novak Djokovic in Indian Wells
The last time Nadal won a set from Novak Djokovic was back in the 2014 Roland Garros final. Between that match and his Indian Wells ’16 semi-final versus the world No.1, Nadal had not taken a set from Djokovic in five matches.
In Indian Wells, Nadal may not have managed a set, but he did hold set point at 5-4 returning, and a few games later he was battling his old rival in a tiebreaker.
That effort was the furthest Nadal had pushed Djokovic in a set since the first set of their 2015 Roland Garros quarter-final which Nadal lost 5-7, and a surefire sign he was on the way back.
3. Defeated Fabio Fognini in Straights in Barcelona Last Sixteen
In Barcelona 2015, Nadal was defeated by Fabio Fognini in straight sets in the last sixteen, Nadal’s second loss to Fognini that season after being defeated by the Italian in three sets in the Rio semis.
Nadal would beat Fognini later on in July in the Hamburg final, but he would once again suffer a defeat to the Italian, and this one would be the most painful yet- Nadal’s first defeat in a Grand Slam after leading by two sets to love.
This year in Barcelona, Nadal did not stumble versus the Italian as he defeated Fognini in straights in the last sixteen, taking the first set 6-2, and then dominating the second set tiebreak 7-1.
Nadal did drop serve three times, but the win was still more straight-forward than might have been expected against an opponent who could have gotten inside Nadal’s head with those 2015 wins.
Nadal refused to let Fognini in his head, and showed he was over those losses last season out on the court.
4. Breaking Down Rivals in Third Sets in Big Matches
In Monte Carlo, Nadal was pushed to the limit by rivals Andy Murray and Gael Monfils as he split the first two sets of his semi-final and final with his rivals in both matches.
There was no competition, however, in the third sets. Nadal took the third 6-2 versus Murray and 6-0 versus Monfils. Nadal upped his aggression and intensity when the match came down to a single set, a scene his fans would have well-remembered and a sign warmly welcomed.
5. Won Monte Carlo and Barcelona Double
Winning the Monte Carlo-Barcelona double was another return to Nadal’s reigning days on Clay- he did it six times in his Roland Garros winning seasons, and seven times in all (2009 was the one year he did not follow up the Monte Carlo-Barcelona double with success in Paris).
In the Barcelona final, Nadal beat Kei Nishikori, the two-time defending champion, 6-4, 7-5.
In the second set, Nadal led 4-1 only to be pulled back, but he managed to stay calm, and crucially broke the Japanese in the final game to take the match, and the title.
Handling his nerves like that, and proving the stronger of the two on the return game that really mattered, with Nishikori serving to stay in the match, was the Nadal of old, raising his game when it was most vital.
Watch Nadal celebrating his Barcelona win in the video below.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) April 24, 2016
6. Getting the Nadal Name Back into the History Books
Nadal has won Barcelona a record nine times now, matching his nine titles in Monte Carlo, and at the French Open.
Nadal has also now equaled Guillermo Vilas’ 49 career Clay court titles.
Nadal is back to where he used to be on clay- being not just relevant in the current era, but in the history books, too.
7. Second Best Return Game on the Tour in 2016
Nadal has the second best return game of all time with 33 % of return games won (Djokovic is fifth with 32).
Nadal was third in 2015 with 31, and in 2016, he is second with 36. That return game is an all too important one on clay where breaks of serve are common place, and both the ability to break right back, and to have a two break cushion can make the difference. Nadal being up there with the very best in that category is a promising sign he is back to his best.
— Rafa Nadal (@RafaelNadal) April 24, 2016
The Signs We Are Still Waiting for
While Nadal is certainly looking back to his best, there are still going to be some who are not convinced. For that to happen, there are two things which Nadal needs to accomplish:
1. A Defeat of Djokovic
If Nadal beats Djokovic this clay season, then he is definitely back, no more questions. Djokovic is so far ahead of the field right now – he is 410 points shy of holding as many ranking points as the world No.2 and 3 put together- and has been so dominant of Nadal in the last two seasons, that a win for Nadal over the world No.1 would be the final silencer to any doubters, and, most importantly, to any doubts Nadal himself might have going on in the back of his mind.
The time is right, too. Djokovic has recently suffered a shock defeat to Jiri Vesely in his Monte Carlo opener– and has all the pressure in the tennis world upon him with Roland Garros, the only slam he has not won, coming up. Facing Nadal in Paris would only crank that pressure up even higher for Djokovic, and Nadal will be only too aware of that, and, crucially, both how it could work in his favor, and how to make it count.
2. The Big One- Winning Roland Garros
If Nadal gets that win over Djokovic prior to Roland Garros, his chances of a historic tenth title in Paris would increase significantly- the Serb is likely to be standing at some point between the Spaniard and a record tenth Roland Garros title.
Whatever happens in the French Open lead-ins, if Nadal beats Djokovic at Roland Garros, and in the final, the question of whether he is back or not would be well and truly redundant, and leave us with another question that will have a fascinating answer to watch unfold- when will Nadal really be back- as a seasonal multi-slam winner, and the world No.1?
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