Rafa's return to summit heralds a different ball game
On Monday, Rafael Nadal reclaimed the world No.1 ranking for the first time in three years. However, this fourth ascent to the throne is a far cry from the previous three in terms of how it reflects on the Spaniard and on men's tennis in general.
After Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov's respective triumphs in Montreal and Cincinnati, Rafael Nadal has returned to the top of the rankings. This curious confluence of events, with new names hitting the heights while certain golden oldies cling on to the glory days, speaks volumes about the state of play on the ATP Tour. Could the gulf between the established legends and their would-be successors finally be on the wane? It is too early to talk of a power shift, but the march of time, which the likes of Nadal and Roger Federer have so remarkably halted, looks to have resumed. For the first time, players born in the 1990s have prevailed on the big stage. And, for the first time since the 'Big Four' has been a thing, three Masters 1000 trophies in a row have eluded their grasp. On the other hand, half of the illustrious quartet have snaffled the first three Grand Slams of the year, with 'Roger' pocketing two of them and 'Rafa' claiming the other, in a thrilling throwback to 2006-2007. But which of these two trends will hold sway at the US Open?
The clay springboard
These transitional periods always provide plenty of excitement. The importance of a handover of sorts can be explained thus: there would surely be mutterings if the No.1 in the years to come hadn't registered a marquee win or two over 'Fedal' along the way, marking a figurative passing of the torch in the pantheon of champions. Besides this symbolic value, the thrills and spills usually make for fascinating viewing. Roger Federer and Pete Sampras only locked horns once, yet the match is indelibly etched in our memories. Meanwhile, the mid-noughties yielded some epic encounters between the Swiss and Andre Agassi (most notably at the 2004 and 2005 US Open). Conversely, it remains a crying shame that Gustavo Kuerten's body failed him before we had the chance to see him take on Nadal on clay.
18 August 2008, 6 June 2010, 7 October 2013 and now 21 August 2017: these are the four dates on which 'Rafa' has conquered the world. However, this most recent rise to the summit stands in stark contrast to the previous three. In fact, it is no stretch to say that there is just a single common denominator: clean sweeps on clay. Just like in 2008 (Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Hamburg, Roland-Garros), 2010 (Monte-Carlo, Madrid, Rome, Roland-Garros) and 2013 (Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Roland-Garros), the Majorcan has become the top dog again in 2017 thanks, in no small part, to a perfect record on the dust, with title runs at Monte-Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid and Roland-Garros. Although he cannot be pigeon-holed as such – as attested to by his five Grand Slam crowns outside Paris – Nadal is first and foremost a clay-courter. It naturally follows, then, that when he rules the roost, it is after laying down the law on 'his' surface. This has held even truer this year, with a whopping 61.2% of his 7,645 ranking points having been accrued on the red stuff. The King of Clay has excelled elsewhere too, making the final in Australia, Miami and Acapulco, but he is nevertheless still waiting for his first hard-court title since Doha in January 2014.
A supreme leader no longer
Another telling particularity of Nadal's return to the summit is the sight of a freshly crowned No.1 with such a fragile grip on the throne. His tally of 7,645 points is the lowest held by the man at the top of the tree since the current rankings system was introduced in 2009. A year since Novak Djokovic raised the bar by smashing through the 16,000-point barrier courtesy of his Roland-Garros triumph, the latest developments signal an abrupt break from a long sequence of indisputable, undisputed No.1s (Federer from 2004 to 2007, and then again in 2009; Nadal in 2008, 2010 and 2013; Djokovic in 2011, 2015 and the first half of 2016) who established their supremacy through spells of sustained success (Andy Murray's 2016 season also deserves a mention on this score). Now a stint of instability would seem to be in store, as is often the case during such interludes between eras.
None of this is to take away from the magnitude of Nadal's achievement. Indeed, it bears highlighting that the Spaniard has become – at 31 years, 2 months and 18 days – the third-oldest No.1 in ATP history (trailing only Agassi and Federer), and has set a new record for the longest gap between debuting at the summit and regaining top spot (nine years, outstripping Jimmy Connors and Agassi's eight-year marks). This is a monumental riposte to those naysayers who, way back in 2005, wrote him off as a mere dirt-baller whose all-action style meant he was doomed to burn out like a shooting star. While his CV definitely contains some gaps of a more negative nature – including the nine Grand Slams and five instalments of the World Tour Finals he has missed in his career, not to mention an edition of the Olympics – his longevity is nothing to be sniffed at.
The land of possibilities
What remains to be seen is for just how long Nadal can hang on to top billing. In the short term, an even more senior ace is snapping at his heels: Federer. When the ball gets rolling at the US Open, there will be just 320 points between these eternal friends and foes – less than a quarter-final berth in New York is worth. The last eight just so happens to be where Andy Murray was knocked out at Flushing Meadows last year before his schlepp to the summit. It would be a bolt from the blue, but a good run in the Big Apple could be enough for the Scot to immediately reclaim his vacated throne. Coming up behind, meanwhile, is the young guard, headed by 'Sascha' Zverev, who has an air of the Djokovic of ten years ago about him. If he continues to progress as he has done in recent months and goes deep in a Slam soon, whether at the upcoming US Open or in Melbourne in January, the German could find himself in a position to challenge for the No.1 ranking sooner rather than later given the shifting sands that are afoot.
At present, no one can lay claim to a sizeable lead over the rest of the field. 2017 has been a year of surprises, a topsy-turvy blockbuster that has ripped up the script from recent seasons; and, make no mistake, there could well be more where that came from. Anything is possible in the coming months. 'Rafa' could continue to push the envelope by turning back the clock further at the US Open and cementing his status until next spring. Alternatively, a merry-go-round could ensue, with three (or even four) players trading places at the top in the same season: Murray, Nadal, plus Federer and/or even Zverev. That would be a first since 2003. Those were different times, but similar circumstances, with a glorious generation symbolised by Agassi giving way to a new wave embodied by Lleyton Hewitt, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Andy Roddick and a certain Federer, all poised shoulder to shoulder on the starting blocks. Men's tennis has once more entered the land of possibilities.