Nadal 2017: Coming back stronger

  • Matt Trollope

Rafael Nadal’s victory at the 2017 French Open may, at first glance, appear to have been just another year the Spaniard triumphed at a tournament he has completely dominated.

But when we dig deeper, we see that this win was far from a foregone conclusion, and marked one of his more inspiring comebacks.

Three years had passed since Nadal had reigned supreme on his beloved clay in Paris. In fact, three years since he had won any Grand Slam title.

In between those Roland Garros victories in 2014 and 2017, Nadal suffered a wretched run with injuries, and his confidence ebbed away.

Lean years

He did not win another title in 2014; shortly after Wimbledon a right wrist injury sidelined him for almost three months, and he was forced to cut that season short to undergo appendix surgery.

In 2015, despite his body cooperating, his mind did not.

Nadal was the five-time French Open defending champion with a 39-match winning streak in Paris, yet he was dumped in the quarterfinals by Novak Djokovic.

That 7-5 6-3 6-1 drubbing remains Nadal’s only ever straight-sets loss at Roland Garros. 

This loss ended a forgettable European spring clay-court season for Nadal, who went title-less for the first time since 2004. Season 2015 also marked the first time in 11 years Nadal did not win either a Grand Slam tournament or an ATP Masters title.

Physical problems returned in 2016 – this time the left wrist.

Rafael Nadal, wearing a wrist guard, announces his withdrawal from Roland Garros in 2016. (Getty Images)

After winning his first two rounds at Roland Garros, he withdrew ahead of his third-round meeting with Marcel Granollers.

“Today is one of the toughest press conferences in my career, probably,” Nadal said. “It's obvious that (this is) the tournament that is more important … in my career, and at the same time a tournament that I feel that if I am well I always have my chances.”

Nadal played just five more events for the rest of that year, and did not win any of them.

After an opening-round loss to Serb Viktor Troicki in Shanghai, he ended his season.

“I need to recover the forehand. I know I need to hit forehands. Every time that I hit the forehand, I need to create pain to the opponent, something that is not happening today,” he admitted.

“Maybe because I had an injury on the wrist and I am scared. Maybe because I still have some limitation in there.

“I have two months and a half (until 2017) to put myself at the level that I need to be, and I have the confidence that I gonna do it.”

Reasserting himself

Already there were question marks swirling around Nadal when he embarked on his 2017 season.

Many had predicted his punishing style would not translate to career longevity, and the previous years’ injuries seemed evidence of this supposedly inevitable physical decline.

Plus, Nadal was now 30 years old, having already pounded his body on the professional circuit for 15 seasons.

“Today is one of the toughest press conferences in my career, probably."
Rafael Nadal, announcing his withdrawal from the third round of Roland Garros in 2016.

Yet it quickly became obvious when watching Nadal compete at Australian Open 2017 that he was a player transformed.

He advanced to his first Grand Slam final in almost three years and was just a few games away from beating Roger Federer in that stunning five-set final.

He backed that up in ensuing months with finals appearances in Acapulco and Miami.

And, once the tour returned to clay, Nadal thrived.

He hoisted the trophy in his very first clay-court event in Monte Carlo, ending a year-long title drought.

“Today I won a very important title for me,” Nadal said.

Rafael Nadal celebrates with his trophy after winning the 2017 Monte Carlo Masters title. (Getty Images)

“For me is important to feel myself competitive every week that I am playing. That's what happened since the beginning of the season. That makes me happy. I lost first three finals this year, but with positive feelings.”

Those positive feelings persisted throughout the clay-court season.

He won his next two tournaments, in Barcelona and Madrid, and extended his winning streak to 17 matches with a run to the Rome quarterfinals.

A loss to Dominic Thiem there did not seem to haunt him, for Nadal stormed through the draw at Roland Garros without dropping a set, routing Thiem 6-3 6-4 6-0 in the semifinals. 

His 6-2 6-3 6-1 destruction of Stan Wawrinka in the final delivered him an astonishing 10th Roland Garros title – a feat termed “La Decima” and spawning the release of a limited edition Rafa-branded Babolat racquet.

“Have been, I think, a perfect Roland Garros for me,” Nadal said.

“During that three years (between Grand Slam titles), I had doubts. Have been some tough moments last times, injuries, so it's great to have big success like this again. Happy because I have been working a lot to be where I am today.

“Have been magical all the things that happened in this tournament for me.”