Tennis fans have been treated to some historic starts over the years. Novak Djokovic shot out to an unmatched 41-0 in 2011, and 26-0 in 2020. Pete Sampras and Roger Federer got out of the blocks in a hurry at 17-0 in 1997 and 2018, respectively.
Add Rafael Nadal to that lofty list. The Mallorcan arrived at the 2022 BNP Paribas Open an unblemished 15-0 on the year, at 35 off to the best start of his superlative-laden career.
“Happiness. Surprise,” said Nadal, who is seeking a record-tying 37th ATP Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells. “I’m thankful for this opportunity and thankful to my team for all the support. I’m going day by day, trying to enjoy it. The moment is an unexpected moment, to be in this position. I’ve already won three titles this year, so that is amazing for me.”
The lefthander has since upped his streak to 16-0, one step closer to Sampras and Federer, thanks to a dramatic 6-2, 1-6, 7-6(3) nail-biter that saw his opponent, 21-year-old American Sebastian Korda, serve for the match ahead 5-2 and 5-4 in the final set.
“He does what he does best and always comes back and fights,” said Korda, who, even in defeat, praised the player whom he has long looked up to.
“He’ll always be my idol in tennis. He’ll always be one of the reasons why I picked up a tennis racquet.”
At this point, none of us should be surprised by the Spaniard’s refusal to give in. It was in January, after all, that Nadal erased a two-sets-to-love deficit against Daniil Medvedev in the title match at the Australian Open, an epic, five-and-a-half-hour, 2-6, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 turnaround that resulted in his record 21st major. Last year, Nadal saved a championship point against Stefanos Tsitsipas in Barcelona, his record 12th tournament title coming in the form of a 6-4, 6-7(6), 7-5 resurrection. The following month, he saved two match points in a three-and-a-half-hour quarterfinal against Denis Shapovalov in Rome, winning 3-6, 6-4, 7-6(3).
Nadal has had his comebacks before, sure; but, in truth, he’s always been more of a frontrunner, someone who makes a habit of dictating from the get-go. Now a tricenarian, he’s apparently the comeback kid, too. Asked on Saturday where that ability to fight comes from, Nadal credited his inner-circle, including uncle Toni Nadal, who served as his coach from 1990 until 2017.
“The reason why I have been fighting during all my tennis career, or why I have the right self-control, the right attitude or fighting spirit, is simple: Because I grew up with this kind of education,” said Nadal, now a win away from becoming the first player with 400 Masters 1000 victories.
“My uncle, my family, never allowed me to break a racquet, never allowed me to say bad words or throw a match. Of course, my parents and family, my uncle, my coach wanted me to win every single match. But that was not the most important thing. The most important thing was the education and the fact that I grew with the values, with the right values. I had to do it that way. If not, I will not play tennis. If I went on court and I created a circus or broke a racquet or lost my self-control, I would not be playing the next tournament, without a doubt. That’s probably why I have this mentality.”
After sitting out much of the 2021 campaign, Nadal has returned with a vengeance, a tour-leading three titles (Melbourne, Australian Open, Acapulco) to his credit. His serve has been as effective as ever, but it’s difficult to pinpoint one stroke that’s behind his resurgence.
“Some days it’s one thing, and other days it’s another. I have been able to always find a way to adapt my game to what I need to become competitive every day,” he said. “Some days playing more aggressive, some days playing more tactfully, sometimes more defensive. But my serve has been working well since the beginning of the year. It’s important at this stage of my career that we do that. And I think I have been brave enough to play with the right determination, the moment that I need it. I’m just trying to work on improving things, and I can’t be more happy with the level of tennis and the level of intensity that I have displayed on the court.”
After his three-set loss to South African Lloyd Harris in Washington last summer, Nadal shut his year down. There were plenty of days, he said, when he questioned his future in the sport he so loves. But then again, comebacks are nothing new for the three-time BNP Paribas Open champion.
“I just tried to stay as positive as possible,” said Nadal. “It’s difficult to believe for people who are not right next to me every single day. I have been emotional. I have been saying that I have been going through some tough moments. It’s been a much longer period of time that I have been suffering.”
“We love to focus on some of the positive storylines, and could there be a better one than Rafa this year?” asked Tennis Channel commentator Lindsay Davenport. “For an Australian Open that started with so much chaos, to have Rafa be able to come through after everything he’s been through was absolutely amazing. He’s a player that we’re so lucky that we’ve got in our sport. His motivation, his work ethic, how he carries himself as a human, I just love how motivated he is. It seems like he’s on his eighth life in tennis with all the injuries.”
Davenport recalled seeing Nadal in the hallway at Roland Garros after his 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(4), 6-2 loss to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals, barely able to walk, his team helping him up the stairs.
“I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he was that hurt.’”
As Nadal would later attest, he couldn’t walk for two weeks.
“It’s not good to talk all the day about the foot. I want this to be the last time that I talk about the foot because I just want to play tennis,” said Nadal this week in Indian Wells. “The foot is not going to be 100 percent recovered. Some days I have certain feelings, and other days I have worse feelings, so it’s about finding ways to play as much as possible without limitations. If you told me the foot is not a worry for me anymore, that is not true. I am worried about my foot every single day because I have an injury that we can’t fix. I’m going to have to find the right balance between competing and to finding the moments to stop and to do the things to try to play as long as possible.”
On Monday, the No. 4 seed will again take the Stadium 1 court at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, this time against 27th seed Daniel Evans of Great Britain, perhaps another comeback on the horizon.