Rafael Nadal can duel with Novak Djokovic in 2019 for majors - but he must change his schedule
The Spaniard was great when he did play in 2018, but he only played 49 times in an injury-hit campaign
It ended as it started for Rafael Nadal. That will be the reflection of 2018 and a year that was great when he was actually on court, but those occasions were often too rare due to injury.
The tennis world will not see Nadal in action again until 2019 after he confirmed on Monday he would miss the ATP Finals in London next week due to an abdominal injury that forced him to miss the Paris Masters.
Twelve months ago the 17-time major winner had made it to London to compete in the end-of-season finals, but played only one match against David Goffin before quitting the tournament due to a knee problem.
So not much has changed, except for the fact it is a different injury causing him to end his season prematurely. As well as the abdominal problem Nadal also has an ankle issue which he plans to have surgery on in a bid to be fully fit for the start of 2019.
It is a frustrating time for the 32-year-old Spaniard, who has not played since a knee injury forced to him retire after two sets of his US Open semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro in September.
The talent and skill remains as great as ever but the body seemingly unable to keep up with the rigours the game demands.
Nadal lost only four matches this year out of 49 . And two of those he was unable to finish. The retirement against Del Potro was his second at a grand slam after a hip injury forced cut short his match against Marin Cilic at the Australian Open in January. Only Dominic Thiem at the Madrid Open and Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon beat Nadal in a match that went the distance.
He was his usual dominant self on clay, collecting an 11th French Open title and three more titles along the way.
Nadal won the Rogers Cup in Toronto in August, proving he could hold his own against the next generation as he powered past Karen Khachanov and Stefanos Tsitsipas on his way to the trophy. A successful title defence at the US Open had looked on the cards until his body let him down against Del Potro. He had his best run at Wimbledon in seven years as he reached the semi-finals before losing a thrilling match to Djokovic.
Plenty of positives to reflect on then, and it calls into question as to whether Djokovic would have been quite so dominant in the second half of the season if Nadal he had been around more.
Once again we find ourselves wondering what shape Nadal will be in for next season. It is worrying he only played 49 matches, only the second time since 2005 that he has played less then 50 times in a calendar year. In 2017, Nadal played 78 matches and regained the world No 1 spot for the first time in four years.
Nadal is still playing at an extremely high level. His only problem is his body keeps letting him down. More worryingly, unlike Roger Federer (knee) or Djokovic (elbow), it is several body parts hampering Nadal.
What Nadal must do in 2019 is protect his body more and that may mean playing a more selective schedule. The target for him must be to be fully fit for the clay-court season in May and June and trying to win a 12th French Open.
He has been almost untouchable on clay for the past two years, and even though Djokovic has now rediscovered his best form, you would still favour the Spaniard if the two meet at Roland Garros next year.
That is not to say that Nadal should ignore the rest of the calendar. But he and his team need to be smart. If extra recovery time means missing the Australian Open in January for him to be right for the rest of the year then he should do it.
Federer has not played on clay since 2016 and it has helped him be a force at Wimbledon and, at 37, has helped him prolong his career.
Nadal is five years younger then Federer, but his all encompassing physical style of play has always put demands on him physically.
There are more grand slams and titles in Nadal. But if he is to duke it out with Djokovic for the top honours he has to listen to his body, even if that means more time on the sidelines in the short term.
Updated: November 6, 2018 02:48 PM