This time last year the talk of Rafael Nadal’s future was a frequent topic of conversation. He had missed the Olympic Games and then the US Open and a few weeks after the last Slam of the year, he also missed the ATP World Tour Finals in London. Many believed that he would not make the return to tennis, that the knee injury sidelining him following his second round loss at Wimbledon was not going to stand up to the rigours of the Tour.
The likes of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were flying with their tennis and pretty much dominating the circuit … along with Roger Federer who remained in the mix.
All those doubts that occupied the observers’ minds were gradually disseminated as Nadal started his return in late February and started to win titles.
The BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells was the first big title to come his way, then the ATP Masters 1000 in Madrid and the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome. The French Open was his for a record eighth time, Montreal and Cincinnati, both Masters 1000’s fell his way and he added another US Open to his tally.
There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that tennis was witnessing a phenomenal year for the Spaniard as he clawed his way back up the rankings after seeing his own drop to five. People were pretty awe struck by the success with his comeback.
Nadal had nothing to defend in ranking points so there was everything to gain with pretty much anything he played whereas the likes of Djokovic, Murray and Federer all had lots to defend. However, that to one side, he still had to perform to pick up those vital ranking points.
Suddenly being at the top of the rankings was very realistic. Nadal had to reach the semis in Beijing to recapture the world No.1 ranking and when Tomas Berdych retired midway through the first set of their match, it all happened.
Rafa is back as the world No.1; something he admits neither he nor anyone in his team could have imagined when he started his return in Vina del Mar, Chile.
“(It is) one of the best years of my career without any doubt,” he said. “Sure it is special to be back to the top position of the ranking after more than a half year without playing tennis. I have 13 finals this year in 14 tournaments. Is just something that I never did in the past. So something very, very special for me.
“Here we were with the situation that I came back to the No. 1 today. That's important. But at the end, it's just a number. What made me happy is all what I did to be back where I am today more than be what I am today.”
The first time he captured the No.1 ranking was in August, 2008 and he says it is hard to compare being No.1 now to the past. He says the “personal satisfaction” is not necessarily being No.1 but more because of all the hard work it took to get there.
Nadal tries to keep things low key. Yes this is great but it’s not as if it’s the end of the year. There is no time to celebrate, as he put it “celebrations are for the end of the season, not before”.
“At the end, tennis is a sport that the negative thing is when you achieve something important, you don't have time to celebrate,” said Nadal. “In a few days you will be another time playing and competing and playing against a player that is trying to beat you again.
“The positive thing is when you lose, you have another opportunity very soon. But is not my time for celebrations. It's time for keep being focused. The season is not over. My work is not over. I need to keep playing well. That's what I going to try.
“At the end of the season, even if I am No. 1 at the end or not, there is a lot of reasons to celebrate the season, because one year ago we were in is completely different situation.”
And that’s where it is going to get incredibly interesting because the man he’s dethroned obviously wants the crown back. Djokovic has vowed that he will fight to the bitter end to end the year as World No.1.
It’s battles like these which continues to make tennis incredibly fascinating and the next few weeks should be captivating.