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The King of Clay has endured a pretty rough 2023 season, and that’s putting things mildly. As you may be aware, Rafael Nadal suffered yet another injury during the 2023 Australian Open. And what looked like a fairly standard route to recovery has transformed into something much more severe. In fact, the injury has forced Nadal to miss every tournament since the 2023 Australian Open – far from ideal.
I’d imagine that this stings all the more now that Djokovic has captured his 3rd Roland Garros title last week. Not only that, but screams of Djokovic now being the official GOAT of men’s tennis are louder than ever before. Rubbing salt in the wound, Djokovic still has Wimbledon and the US Open to go this year, meaning he could finish the season with 25 Grand Slam titles. Although he hasn’t yet achieved the career slam, once again, he has put himself in a position to land such an accolade.
Anyway, I will leave the Djokovic GOAT debate for another day. Keeping the focus on Nadal, since he didn’t compete in the 2023 French Open, he lost all 2000 points from this tournament. Given the nature of the ATP Tour, this means that he has fallen off a cliff in terms of his ATP ranking. Or more specifically – as of the June 12th ATP rankings update, Rafael Nadal is now ranked 136 in the world. Needless to say, this is a major blow for the 22-time Grand Slam champion.
Nadal’s exit from the ATP top 100 begs a fairly obvious question too. Does this mark the beginning of the end for one of the greats of men’s tennis? Let’s discuss things further.
Rafael Nadal Retirement – Can He Really Come Back and Compete at the Highest Level?
In case you missed Nadal’s announcement prior to Roland Garros, he has pretty much confirmed that he will retire at the end of the 2024 season. As sad as this is, it’s an inevitable part of professional tennis. Ultimately, even legends need to make way for the next generation to forge their own path. But due to this enormous rankings slide, what are the implications of such a drop, and can Nadal stick to his plans? There are a few moving elements to this answer.
Hurdle One – Recovering From the Injury
Rafael Nadal didn’t explicitly state that he will miss the remainder of the 2023 season, but things don’t look great. He has recently undergone surgery on the injury that has kept him away from the tour since January 2023. And he has essentially stated that he will need to try something different in order to recover. This basically means that his body is not responding as the doctors would have thought, which is always a worrying problem to have.
Therefore, the first big question over whether this really is the end is whether he can actually recover to compete again in 2024.
Hurdle Two – How Far He Will Actually Drop in the Rankings
The second hurdle that Nadal needs to clear is the point at which he finds himself should he actually recover from the injury. After all, the longer he leaves it to come back to the tour, the further down the rankings he will drop. This has a couple of key impacts on what will happen assuming he does indeed return to competitive tennis. Firstly, he will need to depend on a protected ranking to get into the biggest tournaments on tour. Then again, he’s Rafael Nadal, so this is practically a guarantee.
But secondly, if he gets into these events with a protected ranking, he is likely to have incredibly tough draws. So it will become even more challenging for Nadal to go deep in any tournaments and rack up enough points to climb the rankings significantly.
Hurdle Three – Competing in 2024 and Leaving His Legacy Behind
The third hurdle is the most important of them all. Since Nadal plans to make the 2024 season his last, all tennis fans will be hoping to witness some ‘vintage Nadal’ at all tournaments he plays in. No matter the results, this is what the fans and Nadal himself will be praying for. After all, he is one of the best tennis players that the game has ever seen. So he won’t want to wrap up his career by staging a series of poor performances.
In fact, given the competitive nature that led to much of his success, I expect that he will be incredibly motivated to display his best tennis. But this final hurdle is very much dependent on what happens in regard to the previous two.
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