There are comebacks and then there are comebacks. Nobody, not even Rafael Nadal, believed that he would be 60-3 after missing seven months because of injury after Wimbledon last year. He has reached 12 out 13 finals, won 10 tournaments and two Grand Slams. He is unquestionably the hottest tennis player on the planet right now.
He is also in historically unchartered waters. Overcoming serious injury is hard enough. Overcoming serious injury and coming back a better player at his level has never been done in tennis’ modern era. There were plenty of questions this time last year about Nadal’s very future as a tennis player. But Nadal is redefining what is possible through sheer force of will.
For all of his physical gifts, it is his body that betrayed him. The foundation of his remarkable resurrection has been built on his incredible mental strength - Nadal just might be the mentally toughest tennis player of all time.
"For me it's unbelievable that people talk about his [Nadal’s] body because he is so much better in his mind," Nadal's uncle and only coach, Toni, told USA Today.
The third set against Novak Djokovic in the US Open final encapsulates Nadal’s tenacity. The stats mostly favour Djokovic. His first serve percentage was 72% compared to Nadal’s 53%. He had five break point chances compared to Nadal’s two. He had 17 winners compared to Nadal’s six. Yet it was Nadal who won the set 6-4. He converted both his break-point chances. He saved four of the break-point chances against him.
“It was obvious that in the important moments he played better tennis, and that's why he deserved to win," Djokovic said after the match.
Djokovic is normally the guy who plays better in important moments. Roger Federer is still reeling from the Serb’s return of serve on match-point in the semi-finals of the 2011 US Open. It was an outrageous outright winner that Djokovic slapped past a shocked Federer, who went on to lose the match.
Djokovic once won seven straight finals against Nadal. He left the Spaniard questioning and doubting himself. But as my colleague Ashish Magotra has detailed, Nadal adapted, got better and is now forcing Djokovic to raise his game again in what is the premier arms race in the sport (with due apologies to Andy Murray).
This ability to adapt his game – to refuse to submit to his physical limitations – is what makes Nadal such a dangerous opponent. Djokovic is a better all-round player but Nadal is never out of a match. Djokovic broke first in third set, but couldn’t hold on and capitulated in the fourth. He led 4-2 in the fifth set in the French Open semis earlier this year, but it was Nadal who won that too, taking the final set 9-7. He bends, but he rarely breaks.
To save his knees, Nadal has become more aggressive, positioning himself at the baseline instead of behind it to take the ball earlier and shorten points. It is a strategy Andre Agassi used, taking the ball at the top of the bounce to shorten his opponent’s reaction time. Agassi managed to win Grand Slam titles into his 30s as a result. Nadal has used it to go 22-0 so far this hard court season. He had his serve broken just four times at Flushing Meadows, three times by Djokovic in the final.
Nadal now has 13 Grand Slam titles, trailing only Peter Sampras, with 14, and Federer’s record of 17. That sets up a tantalising possibility. Federer won his 14th Grand Slam title when he was 27. Nadal is 27 now and will turn 28 next June. Given his incredible willpower, he has a good chance of catching Federer, even with Djokovic and Murray around and the problems with his knees. That’s not to say he definitely will; just that the smart money should be on him because we have never seen his like before.
"I don't think anybody's played the game with the same kind of positive energy and emotion," seven-time Grand Slam champions Mats Wilander said. "No one. Not even Lleyton Hewitt and not Jimmy Connors. Even though they are the great fighters, apart from Nadal, they're not as positive as Nadal. He is always positive. He's just a new breed. We've never seen anything like him."