Rafael Nadal: Review of 2018 ATP Season and prediction for 2019
Rafael Nadal’s decision to withdraw from the year-end ATP World Tour Finals due to an abdominal injury marked a disappointing end to his 2018 season.
The year ended the same way as it had begun. 2018 season had begun on an equally disappointing note as a knee injury had forced him to withdraw from World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi, the Brisbane International tournament, and the Fast4 showdown in Sydney.
His preparation for the Australian Open was severely compromised due to injury. He played in a few exhibition matches to prepare for the year’s first grand slam, a tournament he has won only once. He did reasonably well in the tournament until his tryst with injury caught up with him again at the semi-final stage, where he had to retire against Marin Cilic in the fifth set.
After the Australian Open, he decided to withdraw from the Mexican Open, Indian Wells Masters and Miami Open, to fully recover from injury. In retrospect, this seemed to be a wise decision on his part to not risk further injury before his favoured clay-court season.
It came as no surprise when he dominated the clay-court season as he has done for over a decade now. The highlight of the season for Nadal was, of course, an unprecedented 11th French Open triumph, in the final of which, he avenged his only loss on clay this season to Dominic Thiem, at Madrid Masters.
Apart from the French Open, he also won Monte Carlo Masters and Barcelona Open, again for the eleventh time each. He also won an eighth Italian Open, and played a pivotal role in leading Spain to Davis Cup semi-finals, by winning both his singles matches – against Philipp Kohlschreiber and Alexander Zverev.
At Wimbledon Championships, he was involved in two five-set epics - two matches that could each be a contender for the ‘match of the year’. He won his five-set epic against Juan Martin del Potro in the quarter-final but lost another five-setter to Novak Djokovic in the semi-final.
But he bounced back from that disappointment by winning his first Masters tournament on hard courts since 2013, when he defeated the young Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the Canadian Open. Then he wisely withdrew from Cincinnati Masters to rest his body for the US Open.
A well-rested and rejuvenated Rafael Nadal was the defending champion in the year’s last grand slam. However, unlike his 2017 US campaign when he did not lose a single set en route to his third title in New York, his 2018 campaign was bumpy.
He overcame some spirited challenge from Karen Khachanov and Dominic Thiem. The latter especially gave him a hard time in the quarter-final and this was his third five-set classic in two back to back grand slams. Though he managed to edge past Thiem, the monumental effort that he put in, in that match, certainly took its toll. He had to retire mid-match in the semifinal against del Potro, due to injury.
That, unfortunately, turned out to be his last match of the 2018 season. After that, he has had to withdraw from the Asian Swing, as well as Paris Masters and ATP World Tour finals due to injury. He has now undergone a preventive ‘ankle surgery’, which would hopefully reduce his injury woes in the foreseeable future.
Though the 2018 season has been marked by many injuries to Nadal, leading him to take part in only a few select tournaments, it’s remarkable that for a greater part of the year, till as late as Paris Masters, he managed to hold on to number 1 position in the rankings, with only a few weeks held by Federer during that period.
His win-loss record for the season is a satisfactory 45-4, though he would surely wish three of those four had not come in the three grand slams! Apart from the disappointments of losing the world number 1 ranking and a very close encounter to the Serbian at Wimbledon Championships, he would also rue the fact that injury prevented him from achieving further glory in two other grand slams – the Australian Open and the US Open.
The injury also prevented him from fighting for yet another year-end number 1 ranking. Moreover, thanks to his abdominal injury, he could not have a shot at two elusive titles – Paris Masters and World Tour Finals.
But the silver lining, if any, for Nadal is that he seems to have had a successful ankle surgery. He would get to heal his body as the offseason starts now. He will get a two-month break to take care of his body, and then begin the 2019 season on a much better note.
What will also help him in his quest for regaining the world number 1 ranking is that he does not have many points to defend before the clay court season, as he had to skip most of those tournaments due to injury this year. And if he remains fit, there is no reason why he cannot repeat his clay court domination for one more time.
It is difficult to predict what the new season will hold for Nadal. It depends to a large extent on how injury-free he remains in the season, and to a lesser extent on how his opponents, primarily Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, fare. But one would hazard the following predictions, in the hope that he remains injury-free for the most part of the year, if not for the entire duration.
Prediction for 2019: Rafael Nadal will regain the Number 1 ranking, but may not end the year as number 1.
He will again dominate the clay-court season and win a 12th French Open.
Possible Surprise: A fully-fit and injury-free Rafael Nadal will win a second Australian Open to become the only male player after Rod Laver to win all the grand slams at least twice.