The end of the tennis season has not been kind to Rafael Nadal.
While the 33-year-old Spaniard has ended the year ranked No. 1 four times from 2008 to 2017, he did it on the strength of early-season success at the major championships.
In 2008, Nadal won the French Open and Wimbledon. In 2010, he captured the French, Wimbledon and United States Open titles. And in 2013 and ’17, he was victorious at the French and U.S. Opens. In those years, Nadal’s command of the top spot was secured before the conclusion of the year-end ATP Finals, which begin Sunday at London’s O2 Arena.
More often than not, by season’s end, Nadal’s body has been bruised and battered. Though he has qualified for the ATP Finals every year since 2005, he has only played the tournament eight times, pulling out with injuries nearly every other year. Two years ago, he withdrew with a knee injury and last year he had ankle surgery.
This year, Nadal’s participation in London was put in jeopardy when he withdrew minutes before the start of his semifinal against Denis Shapovalov at the Paris Masters on Saturday with an abdominal strain sustained during his prematch warm-up. Had Nadal won the Paris Masters, he would have clinched the year-end No. 1 before the ATP Finals began.
“I hope to be ready for London,” Nadal said in Paris. “That’s the biggest goal. I will do all that I can and what is mathematically possible to recover for it.”
The ATP Finals is the only significant title missing from Nadal’s résumé. He has reached the final twice, losing to Roger Federer in 2010 and Novak Djokovic in 2013.
Despite his withdrawal in Paris, Nadal regained the No. 1 ranking on Monday. He is the second-oldest No. 1 in ATP rankings history, behind Federer, who was 36 when he regained No. 1 just before Wimbledon last year. Andre Agassi was also 33 when he became No. 1 for his last time in 2003.
Assuming Nadal does compete in the ATP Finals, the year-end No. 1 ranking could come down to a battle between him and Djokovic, the eventual winner over Shapovalov in Paris.
Nadal and Djokovic split the two majors this year, though Nadal also reached the final at the Australian Open, where he lost to Djokovic. Nadal beat Dominic Thiem to claim a 12th French Open in June and won his fourth U.S. Open when he beat Daniil Medvedev. Djokovic won his sixth Australian Open and ousted Roger Federer in a fifth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon.
“If you had told Rafa at the start of the year that he would win one Grand Slam, he’d say, ‘O.K., a good year,’” said Brad Gilbert, a former world No. 4 and now an ESPN analyst. “You tell him he wins two Slams, he pushes the chips all in. He’s had a great year so far.”
Nadal typically does not perform well late in the season, if he plays at all. His career record on indoor courts going into the ATP Finals is 82-37 as compared with 888-159 outdoors. He has won 82 career titles outdoors and only two indoors.
This year, entering the ATP Finals, he had played just four indoor matches, a win over Milos Raonic at the Laver Cup and three in Paris. He also took time off to marry his longtime girlfriend, Xisca Perelló, in October.
In all, Nadal has played just 12 tournaments this season. Only once, in Acapulco in February, did he lose before the semifinals. But, as too often happens with him, his body failed him, forcing him to pull out of Indian Wells and Miami.
He also quit after his second match at the Laver Cup in September. In all, Nadal pulled out of seven tournaments this year because of an assortment of ailments.
Despite his five-week layoff following the U.S. Open and Laver Cup, Nadal seemed fresh and content when he arrived in Paris. He had played an exhibition with Djokovic in Kazakhstan the previous week and then held a friendly practice session with him in Paris. A week later, Nadal ended Djokovic’s hold on the No. 1 ranking.
If Nadal is unable to compete in London, Djokovic must reach the final by going undefeated in his three round-robin matches or lose a round robin but still win the title. If Nadal plays, he could clinch No. 1 by winning his three round-robin matches. That may not be so easy given the caliber of the field.
The other top eight players are Federer, Medvedev, Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the defending champion Alexander Zverev and Matteo Berrettini. Nadal is in the same round-robin group as Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev, thus avoiding Djokovic and Federer until at least the semifinals.
When Nadal is healthy, he is difficult to beat on any surface.
“When I close my eyes and think about Rafa, I only imagine the complete aspects of his game,” said Karen Khachanov, who has lost to Nadal six times over the last three years. “He’s such a fighter, and he’s always connected. No matter how close a match is, he can always turn around a situation and come back to win.”
If Nadal does end the year No. 1, he will be tied with Djokovic, Federer and Jimmy Connors with five year-end No. 1 finishes apiece, just one behind the record-holder, Pete Sampras, who was No. 1 every year from 1993 to 1998.
“I’m very proud about the year that I’m having, and now is the moment to keep pushing a little bit,” said Nadal just before the start of the Paris Masters. “As I said during the last couple of years, it is not my goal to be No. 1. It’s about the need to organize my calendar and try to do the right things to play as long as possible.”
That said, Nadal is not averse to ending another year at the top.
“I sleep the same when I’m No. 1 and No. 2,” he said. “Of course, I prefer to be No. 1.”