x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Through it all, he’s the one

He was written off, again, after his early exit from Wimbledon, but Nadal has defied those critics to reclaim top spot.

Rafael Nadal has had plenty to celebrate recently, including returning to the top spot in the world rankings at Novak Djokovic’s expense. Mark Ralston / AFP
Rafael Nadal has had plenty to celebrate recently, including returning to the top spot in the world rankings at Novak Djokovic’s expense. Mark Ralston / AFP

He was written off, again, after his early exit from Wimbledon, but Nadal has defied those critics to reclaim top spot

The sign simply said “Rafa No 1”.

It was premature, but only by about 30 minutes.

Still, at least Rafael Nadal’s fans at the China Open semi-final had shown faith in their hero often inexplicably absent over the last 16 months.

During that period, Nadal, a football fan himself, must have at times known what it feels like to be the Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger; one day a genius, the next yesterday’s man.

Fickleness, among the media and fans, is not the exclusive domain of the beautiful game, and not even one of tennis’s greats is immune.

Nadal crowned a stunning 2013 by reclaiming the No 1 spot after Tomas Berdych retired injured with the Spaniard leading 4-2 in the first set of the semi-final at Beijing’s Olympic Park.

The latest ATP rankings will show Nadal has replaced Novak Djokovic at the top, regardless of the outcome in today’s final against the Serb.

Djokovic, for the record, had been sitting on top of the rankings for 101 weeks, one short of Nadal’s longest stretch of 102.

Incredibly, only four months ago the knives were out for Nadal. Again. It had only been 15 days since he won his fourth consecutive French Open title, and a record eighth in total.

Yet his first-round loss at Wimbledon to 135-ranked Steve Darcis bought back all those niggling doubts that had stalked him during an eight-month lay off from July 2012 to February 2013.

Had injuries taken a toll on his increasingly fragile knees? Was he physically capable of playing at the highest level for any lengthy period?

Nadal had, during his enforced break, blamed the tour’s punishing schedule and number of events on hard courts on his injuries.

Critics, always desperate for an overarching narrative, jumped on what they believed to be excuses by a player whose body was showing signs of irreversible decline.

How much of the criticism Nadal takes to heart is not known, but he will surely be affording himself a smile today at proving people wrong.

His undoubted class has shone through.

But a closer look at Nadal’s season shows that, with the obvious exception at Wimbledon, there is little wrong with his form either.

Since his return in February after six months out rehabilitating from tendinitis in his knee, he has been outstanding, winning 10 titles, and remaining unbeaten on those troublesome hard courts with a record of 27-0.

As fifth seed, the lowest he had ever been at Roland Garros, he won the French Open.

By the time of the US Open in September, Nadal was seeded second, and he beat then World No 1 Djokovic in four sets to all but guarantee, if he remained healthy, that he would be going back to the top of the rankings.

All which makes the overreaction to his Wimbledon exit, also his last loss, all the harder to fathom.

Now, his return to No 1 for the first time since July 2011 has rubber-stamped his comeback to the top of his game, but he was the first to admit that has not always been at his best this week.

In the quarter final, Fabio Fognini of Italy led 3-0 and 4-1 in the second set, before Nadal rallied to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-1.

“One of the most important things in tennis [is to] win when you don’t play well,” he said, acknowledging his poor performance.

Against Berdych, things went more smoothly than Nadal could have expected. He had already looked more like his usual self before back pains forced the Czech to tap out, giving the occasion an undeniable sense of anticlimax.

Nadal looked almost apologetic as the Beijing crowd politely applauded the new World No 1 off the court.

He will likely be grateful, though, that his brief time on the court leaves him fresher for today’s final. Still, regaining the top spot will feel hollow if he loses in the final.

A win, and another hard court title, today should keep those doubting his fitness quiet for a while.

Until he gets knocked off that No 1 spot, at least. But on current form, it could be quite the wait.

akhaled@thenational.ae