ATP top 10 players of the decade: No. 2 – Rafael Nadal

Hannah Wilks:

To celebrate the 2010s coming to an end, our tennis editors have chosen their top-10 ATP and WTA Tour players of the decade. Today we profile our no. 2 ATP player from 2010-19, Rafael Nadal.

2010-19 fast facts:
Highest ranking: 1 (157 weeks)
Grand Slam titles: 13
Grand Slam finals: 6
Masters 1000 Series titles: 20
Overall ATP titles: 48
Davis Cup champion 2011, 2019

Remember when Rafael Nadal was a clay-court specialist, a grinding defensive player whose body would give out on him by the time he was 30 and unlikely ever to catch up to Roger Federer’s incredible Grand Slam title haul?

No, me neither.

In all seriousness, it’s almost unthinkable that Nadal isn’t the no. 1 player of the decade, so superb have the past ten years been for him. Quick snapshot: At the start of the decade, he had six Grand Slam titles, four of them at the French Open, and had spent an impressive 46 weeks as the world no. 1. As it closes, he is the world no. 1 – the oldest man ever to finish the year in the top spot, which he has now held for an overall 203 weeks, 157 of them in this decade. He holds a record 35 Masters 1000 Series titles. He started the decade by becoming the youngest man in the Open Era to complete the career Grand Slam when he won the US Open in 2010, and finishes it with 19 Grand Slam titles including an incredible 12 French Opens – and if he can win one more, he’ll have tied Federer’s haul of 20 major titles, making the prospect of Nadal exceeding it and becoming the player who has won the most Grand Slam titles in history extremely plausible.

It’s really difficult to find ways to do justice to the empire Nadal has created on clay, to the extent of his domination, without falling into the trap of simply reciting statistics. But just a few statistics. In ten years, he has lost just one match at the French Open, to Novak Djokovic in 2015 (he pulled out before playing his third-round match at Roland Garros in 2016). This decade alone, he has won 34 titles on clay, including eight French Opens, 15 Masters 1000 Series titles and eight 500 titles. He has won 250 matches on clay in the past ten years, and lost just 23. That, to put it simply, is not normal.

But the crazy thing is that that excellence hasn’t meant neglecting other surfaces. Completing the career Grand Slam in 2010, Nadal won three majors on three different surfaces that season; in the 2010-11 stretch, he made the final of six of the eight Grand Slams played. He may not have won the Australian Open since 2009, but he’s been in four finals; and, incredibly, the US Open is now his second most successful major, after winning it four times this decade.

It also hasn’t been smooth sailing. Since 2012, when Nadal shut down his season after a shocking defeat to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon in July and did not return until the following February, it feels like barely a season has gone by that hasn’t been blighted by injury concerns for Nadal. He played just seven matches after Wimbledon in 2014, missed grass and had a truncated end to the year in 2016, had to pull out of the ATP Finals in 2017, was off court from January to April in 2018 and shut down his season entirely after the US Open, and even during his brilliant 2019 season was so worn down by being in pain that he considered walking away from the sport for a time after suffering some shock defeats early in the clay-court season (any defeats during the clay-court season for Nadal are shock ones).

What’s been the key to Nadal’s longevity – something nobody anticipated? He’s remodeled, streamlined and improved his serve massively, for one thing, enabling him to play a much higher percentage of quick first-strike points – crucial on hard courts. Overall, his approach to the game is much more aggressive, much more attacking. To have the humility to retool major aspects of one’s game like that when one is already a champion many times over is staggering; to have the capacity, the athletic versatility, to do it is just as impressive.

Nobody, and I really mean this very literally, nobody in 2010 anticipated that Nadal would finish the decade as the world no. 1, still less that he would be continuing to notch up incredible career achievements at the age of 33 and be on the verge of, perhaps, becoming the greatest Grand Slam champion of all time (it’s hard to believe that Nadal doesn’t have at least one more French Open title in him despite all his physical frailties, so staggering is his level on that surface). But in this, as in so many other things – his resilience, his capacity to adapt, his versatility – we have underestimated him. We’ve seen the absolute best of Rafael Nadal this decade as he’s blazed a trail which will never be forgotten.