Resurgent Rafael Nadal focused on extending career, not No. 1 ranking

Rafael Nadal's 2019 Grand Slam season started with a blowout loss to Novak Djokovic in Australia, but ended with the US Open title. Chryslene Caillaud/Panoramic/Icon Sportswire

Moments after Rafael Nadal won the grueling, five-set U.S. Open final in early September, he sat spent but relaxed in his chair on the court, gazing at the giant video screen high up in Arthur Ashe Stadium. As images from each of his previous 18 Grand Slam tournament victories flashed by, Nadal grew transfixed, seemingly lost in a world of his own.

As the tribute was ending, he leaned forward, head down, forearms resting on his quads. His hands dangled by his knees, the ragged, soiled wrappings of surgical tape still on his fingertips. He lifted his head just high enough to knuckle away the unstoppable tears, then lowered his head again.

Nadal, so rarely beaten and bowed on Arthur Ashe or any other tennis court, was overwhelmed, powerless against the emotions triggered by the video. Just eight months earlier, he had been struggling to find his way back from a four-month hiatus due to yet more leg and foot injuries. He was unsure if he could reclaim his place in tennis' Big Three, never mind challenge an imperious, top-ranked Novak Djokovic. That anxiety proved justified when Djokovic crushed Nadal in the first Grand Slam final of this year, in Australia.

There Nadal sat, though, a choked-up but triumphant warhorse who had transformed a year ushered in with trepidation into -- thus far -- one of the finest in a certain Hall of Fame career.

Nadal's 47-6 record (and counting) is outstanding. If he won't match the title count or volume of wins he posted in his best year -- 2010, when Nadal went 71-10 and won three majors for the only time in his career -- the W's he has accumulated this year may loom even more significant, for they have brought him to the cusp of sovereignty.

"I always find a way to keep going, you know, and to do my route," Nadal said after he won the French Open in June. "And here I am at the age of 33, enjoying, playing good tennis. Let's see for how long I am able to manage and to hold this."

Quite a period, it seems. Having overcome some physical challenges in the first few months of the season, he hit his stride with that big win on his beloved clay. As he said in Montreal, where he won his record 35th Masters 1000 title in August, "One of the most important things for me, personally, and one of the things that I'm [most] satisfied [with] is that I have been able to find always a solution to keep being competitive at the highest level possible."

In winning two majors (French Open and U.S. Open) in a season for the fourth time in his career in 2019, Nadal became the only man to win five majors after the age of 30. Still greater accolades and prizes loom within reach. Nadal's fourth U.S. Open title was also his 19th major championship. That moved him to within one title of the record, held by his 38-year-old confrere, Roger Federer. It also increased his lead over Djokovic to three majors. With Federer and Djokovic both eliminated and unable to add to their portfolios at the U.S. Open, Nadal's real-world gain in New York was more like four titles.

The Australian Open, where Djokovic is most difficult to beat, comes next. Unless Federer wins it, Nadal, the 12-time French Open champion, will be positioned to equal the Swiss idol's Grand Slam singles title record in Paris no matter what happens in Australia.

The media, ever eager to handicap the race for the men's Grand Slam singles title record, has tried repeatedly to draw out Nadal on the subject (Djokovic has already declared his intent to claim the record). But Nadal always gives the same answer. He said in New York, "I would love to be the one who wins more, but I am not thinking [about it], and I'm not going to practice every day or not play tennis for it. I am playing tennis because I love to play tennis."

Nadal's proficiency in the majors is all the more striking because of how often he was compromised, forced to retire deep into a Grand Slam draw or to miss the call to post.

"I lost, I think, [in] around 15 or even more Grand Slams in my career [because of] injuries," Nadal, who has skipped eight majors after playing in his first, said. "But being honest, I never complain [to] myself much, and I never tried to think about, 'Well, am I gonna catch Roger or not?' I am not very worried about this stuff."

While Nadal can't add to his haul of majors this year, he is penciled in to play the two remaining Masters 1000 events as well as the ATP World Tour Finals. Nadal already has a significant lead in the race for the coveted year-end No. 1 ranking and, due to his absence last fall, he has no points to defend. Djokovic's degree of fitness and interest are presently questionable, and even Federer is so far behind in the race that he doesn't pose much of a threat. Nadal also denies that he's focused on joining Djokovic, Federer and Jimmy Connors as a five-time year-end No 1. Only Pete Sampras has bagged that honor six times.

"With my age and with my goals," Nadal said in New York, "I cannot lose energy or time to follow [chase] the No. 1 ranking. I need to think about my career in a different way."

Nadal was doing just that as this year began, but not in a good way. A knee injury, minor surgery on his foot, rust from missing four months and a last-minute thigh strain sharply curtailed Nadal's preparation for the Australian Open. In spite of that, he played well enough to reach the final. Then Djokovic allowed him just eight games in the worst blowout of their Grand Slam rivalry.

"He played fantastic," Nadal said afterward. "Five months without competing, having that big challenge in front of me, I needed something else. That something else probably today, I don't have it yet."

That was Nadal at his rational, patient best, but even that measured attitude couldn't prevent him from plunging into pessimism about his future. Suddenly, he faced fears and doubts. "Mentally I was not enjoying [tennis]," he would later say of those weeks in the late winter and spring. "[I was] too much worried about [my] health and, being honest, too negative."

The situation came to a head in Barcelona, where Nadal, understanding that he had issues to resolve, locked himself in his room to decide whether to take time off in order to recapture his fitness and joie d' combat or to "change drastically" his negative attitude and mentality.

Nadal chose the second option. He came up short in the semifinals at Barcelona and Madrid, but he turned around his year starting in Rome, where he beat Djokovic in the final. Nadal has lost just one match since then, a highly competitive Wimbledon semifinal with Federer.

"Nadal wasn't his invincible self early in that clay season," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert told me. "But the three guys who beat him in the spring [Fabio Fognini, Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas] played at an unbelievably high level. Best-of-five [sets] is a different beast. That's the greatness of it, you have to sustain the physical and mental strengths much longer. And nobody compares to Rafa in that."

In compiling match wins in London, Montreal and Flushing Meadows, Nadal showed once again how far he has branched out from his clay-court roots. His backhand, once a tool used mostly to position himself to crack a monstrous forehand, now is a tool he uses expertly to change pace or keep less powerful opponents pinned to the baseline, afraid to risk opening up the court for an athletic Nadal counter-attack.

Nadal's serve, once merely a rally starter, now is a precise instrument taking the exact measure of the quality of an opponent's return. Nadal navigated the first four rounds of the U.S. Open with the highest percentage of first-serve points won (83 percent, on 111 of 133). His forehand remains the deadliest, as well as the most radical, shot in tennis, but it's no longer a preemptive weapon. Matteo Berrettini, Nadal's U.S. Open semifinal opponent, was getting greater velocity and spin off that wing during their match.

The volley may be Nadal's most overlooked shot. He serve-and-volleyed a surprising 20 times in the U.S. Open final win over Daniil Medvedev, winning 17 of those points. In total, he ended up at the net 66 times, winning 51 of those points.

Those are significant details, although Nadal tends to describe his evolution into a more versatile player as a matter of expediency rather than a quest for perfection. At Wimbledon, he said, referring to Federer as well as himself: "We need to add new things because of the age, [because] we are losing another thing from the other side. Of course, I am serving better. I am hitting the backhand better. Maybe volleying better, slicing better. But even like this, I don't know if my level today will beat my level of years ago."

In some other, extra-technical or strategic ways, this is the same Rafa who took the world by storm in 2005 when, having just turned 19 and playing in his first French Open, he won it. He's currently the best in his class in a curious department, breaking back 47 percent of the time after he's been broken. That's how furious a competitor he is.

Nadal continued to sit, head down, as the images on the big screen in New York faded away and USTA officials prepared for the trophy presentation. The fans in Gotham began to chant, "Rafa, Rafa, Rafa," whereupon Nadal slowly stood, gazed at the multitudes, and then slowly raised both arms high in a gesture less of triumph than celebration.

Once again, it proved impossible to keep that man down.