Rafael Nadal ends the season in a familiar place: On top


He and Spain are team champions again, just as they were in 2004, when Nadal was a longhaired teenager in clam diggers surprised to be picked for singles.

The 2019 men’s tennis season did not end as it had begun for Rafael Nadal.

In January, after overcoming his latest round of injury concerns, he faced Novak Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open and looked powerless as Djokovic ripped winners and controlled long rallies seemingly at will.

Flash forward to Sunday night at the Caja Mágica when Nadal, after overcoming another round of injury concerns, finished off a week of remarkable tennis and leadership by clinching the Davis Cup title in front of a home crowd in Madrid.

He and Spain are team champions again, just as they were in 2004, when Nadal was a longhaired teenager in clam diggers surprised to be picked for singles.

He is now 33 and back at No. 1 at season’s end — a record 11 years after he finished on top for the first time.

He is a different style of player at this stage: more intent on shortening points with his improved serve, excellent volleys and advanced court position (when he’s not returning serve near the back wall). But he is the same kind of champion: a supreme in-the-moment battler whose attitude is as big a weapon as his bolo-whip forehand.

“The guy just continues to amaze me,” said Paul Annacone, who coached two former No. 1s, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. “The thing about Rafa is his engine revs so high that you always thought he would burn out faster, but I think the biggest factor is the simplicity of why he plays and what drives him. He’s never really gotten sidetracked from that theme, even with his injuries. And as much as he loves to compete, the simplicity of accepting what he can’t control really has helped him continue to play.”

Nadal did have a rare case of melancholy this spring after his chronic knee tendinitis flared and forced him to withdraw during the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California.

His coach, Carlos Moyá, said Nadal was as dejected as he had seen him, but instead of taking an extended break, Nadal played his way through and out of the funk during the clay-court season.

After defeating Djokovic for the Italian Open title, he won the French Open for a preposterous 12th time. After losing a Wimbledon semifinal to Federer, Nadal rebounded again to win a fourth U.S. Open title. He did it by fighting through fatigue and tactical conundrums to snuff out a comeback by newcomer Daniil Medvedev in a classic five-set final full of all-court play and extraterrestrial defense.

After taking a break to marry his longtime girlfriend, Maria Francisca Perelló, in Mallorca, Spain, in October, Nadal regathered momentum by winning his final two round-robin matches at the ATP Finals and then was at full power for Davis Cup in singles and doubles.

He and Djokovic divided the biggest spoils in men’s tennis in 2019: Each won two of the four Grand Slam singles titles. But Nadal was the one who finished on the upswing, and he can now ride that wave into 2020, when he will try to match Federer’s record of 20 major men’s singles titles.

For now, Nadal has 19, though he prefers not to discuss the chase, out of respect for Federer and a desire to avoid narrowing his focus.

Others will discuss it plenty in the new year, however.

“I don’t see how he can’t get to 20,” Annacone said. “I think Rafa is still the favorite at the French until he retires or until he can’t walk. But I’ll be shocked if there’s not one new Slam winner next year.”

With a new decade looming, it does at last seem conceivable. No active player currently under 30 has won a major singles title, which is without precedent in modern men’s tennis. The Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Federer — finished in the top three slots in the rankings for the eighth time overall.

But there were four first-time members of the year-end top 10 in 2019, including Medvedev, 23, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, 21.

Youngsters like Denis Shapovalov of Canada, 20, and Andrey Rublev of Russia, 22, look quite capable of breaking into the top 10 in 2020 if they can improve their consistency and stay healthy. Both played big roles in the Davis Cup finals, but the event was a mixed bag.

Tsitsipas, the soulful and shaggy new Greek star, defeated every member of the Big Three, including Nadal on clay, in 2019. So did Dominic Thiem, and they underscored the threat of generational change by facing off for the title at the ATP Finals in London, with Tsitsipas prevailing.

The consensus match of the year was Djokovic’s five-set victory in the Wimbledon final over Federer after saving two match points on Federer’s serve.

But other memorable duels were old guard-new wave matchups: Tsitsipas upsetting Federer at the Australian Open, Nadal holding off Medvedev at the U.S. Open and Thiem defeating Djokovic at the ATP Finals.

Still, beating the Big Three over best-of-five sets to win majors has remained too much of a physical and mental challenge.

The biggest rankings leap into the top 10 was made by Matteo Berrettini, a 23-year-old Italian with charm and a ferocious forehand and serve. He rose to No. 8 from No. 54 in 2019.

The year-end top 100 included eight Italians, the most in history. None will be more closely watched in 2020 than the youngest: the 18-year-old Jannik Sinner. He made a vertiginous climb in a hurry: from 763rd to 78th in a year with his precociously polished power game.

Though there were 33 players age 30 and over in the year-end top 100, including the imposing 40-year-old Ivo Karlovic, that was a reduction from 43 such players in 2017.

Youth rose in 2019, and so did tennis tensions, as internal political squabbles often dominated off-court discussions. Chris Kermode, chief executive and chairman of the ATP, was ousted, and one of his roles will be filled next year by Andrea Gaudenzi, a former pro player from Italy. Djokovic, president of the player council, seemed to spend as much of the year in backrooms as on center courts.

Vasek Pospisil, one of Canada’s leaders in its run to the Davis Cup final, has organized a large group of players, including Djokovic, to pressure Grand Slam tournaments for more financial transparency and a greater percentage of prize money. WTA tour players like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys have joined the campaign.

Labor unrest before the Australian Open in January is not out of the question, but it is unlikely, given that Federer and Nadal have not joined others in signing a letter of engagement.

They remain engaged, however, having rejoined the player council to have a formal say in the tour’s future. Solving the team event logjam should be a priority.

The new ATP Cup, with a format similar to the reconfigured Davis Cup’s, starts on Jan. 3 in Australia ahead of the Australian Open. Next year, the top players will have to choose (or not) among ATP Cup, Davis Cup, the Laver Cup and the Summer Olympics.

“And by the way, you have the regular tour,” Annacone said. “The schedule is a joke next year. You have to be really smart, and you have to make hard decisions.”

Failing a merger of Davis Cup and ATP Cup, men’s tennis should work to give Davis Cup a slot on the calendar that makes the most sense for the player pool while finding a way to preserve the Laver Cup, the team event in September, which is backed by Federer and has been a hit.

But the Laver Cup involves 14 players. The Davis Cup finals involve approximately 90 in the current 18-team format (fewer would be better).

Next year, the Davis Cup finals are set to finish in Madrid on Nov. 29, which gives those 90 men barely one month of offseason.

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