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Rafa Rising to Number 1 Spot?

Michael Hale in Features 16 Aug 2013
Can Rafa make it to the top again? (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Is Rafael Nadal on the verge of reclaiming the number one spot? 

For someone who ranks in the very top echelon of those to play the game, Rafael Nadal has spent an awful lot of his career chasing the world number one ranking rather than occupying it. In the open-era only Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have won more Grand Slam titles than Nadal but they are joined by another four men in spending more time in the top spot than the Spaniard. John McEnroe, for instance, won seven major titles compared to Nadal’s current tally of 12 but spent 170 weeks at number one while Nadal has managed 102 weeks so far. 

There are possible reasons for this apparent incongruity. For one thing it could be argued that Nadal was unfortunate to spend 160 consecutive weeks at number two behind Roger Federer between 2005 and 2008. Federer’s exceptional performance before and during this period is perhaps the best prolonged period of play seen in men’s tennis. At other times in tennis history Nadal’s own performance during this period of time would have been sufficient to reach the top spot. Equally Nadal has intermittently suffered injury disruptions that have hampered his ranking ambitions. 

However the underlying cause can be traced to the Spaniard’s tendency towards lop-sided seasons, specifically often not performing as well during the latter months as earlier in a given year. It is obviously no coincidence that Nadal’s favoured clay court tournaments are held in spring and early summer while less preferred hard court surfaces and indoor events predominate later in the year. When in top form though Nadal has shown the ability to win and pick up points throughout the year; in 2008 and 2010, the years he ultimately finished as end-of-year number one, he won significant tournaments after Wimbledon. In 2008 Nadal won the Canada Masters and reached the semi-finals of the US Open, Cincinnati and Shanghai, and in 2010 won the US Open and reached the final of the World Tour Finals (his best performance at both events). 

The question of what can be expected from Nadal for the remainder of this season is of great interest at the moment. His outstanding level of play since returning from injury in February sees him leading the way in ranking points earned this season and he is in position to challenge Djokovic for the end-of-year number one. To add more spice to this already zesty mix, Djokovic is now just 8 weeks behind Nadal in total weeks spent at number one, giving Nadal even more motivation for a third reign at the top as soon as possible. 

Since Nadal missed all the post-Wimbledon tournaments last year, it is clearer to consider the points won this year and treat the upcoming months as a race to the end of the season rather than look at what points the players have to defend on their official rankings. At the start of the Cincinnati Masters this week Nadal had a 1,420 advantage in points gained in 2013 over Djokovic. Nadal’s win over his rival last week in Montreal is significant for a couple of reasons in context of the battle for end-of-year number one. It enabled the world number three to gobble up a big chunk of points by going on to defeat Milos Raonic for the title while denying Djokovic the opportunity to do so himself. But perhaps more significantly, the win showed Nadal is in the sort of form that can see him contend at the remaining tournaments this year.  

2013 ranking points won to date (as of 12/08/2013)
  1. Rafael Nadal: 8010
  2. Novak Djokovic: 6590 
  3. Andy Murray: 5250

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

After winning in Montreal, Nadal typically played down his front runner status for end-of-year number one, saying he feels that he has an advantage but not enough to be the favourite because of the surfaces at the remaining Masters and Grand Slam are more favourable to Djokovic and there are many points still at stake. 

“We have to realise how many points I have to win to be number one,” Nadal told reporters. “I think I will not be number one if I have less than 10,000 points at the end of the season. Today I have 8,000. I need to win minimum 2,000 more. That's very difficult in this part of the season, but I'm going to try."

If Djokovic is able to make headway into the points deficit by the end of the US Open it will put pressure on Nadal to play a full programme until the end of the season. Nadal’s prospective schedule consists of five tournaments after the US Open, with the China Open and Swiss Indoors added to the Shanghai Masters, Paris Masters and World Tour Finals. This represents a workload that outweighs Nadal’s equivalent activity in previous seasons when, presumably, his knees were not as problematic as they are now. In fact Nadal has not played the Paris Masters since 2009 and he may be better served by saving his energies for that rather than making his scheduled appearances in Beijing and Basle. 

With the number one ranking potentially going down to the wire we can certainly look forward to some great tennis during the remainder of the season. When Nadal met Djokovic in the Roland Garros semi-finals earlier this year I was convinced that the winner would finish the year at number one. Subsequently my conviction was shaken a month later when the previously victorious Nadal lost in the first round of Wimbledon to Steve Darcis.  Nadal beating Djokovic on the hard court of Montréal has seen fortunes sway once more and perhaps there will be a couple more twists and turns to go yet. 

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Rafa Rising to Number 1 Spot?

Is Rafael Nadal on the verge of reclaiming the number one spot?  His outstanding level of play since returning from injury in February sees him leading the way in ranking points earned this season and he is in position to challenge Djokovic for the end-of-year number one.

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