Will Nadal's winning streak continue in 2014?

Rafael Nadal with the U.S. Open Trophy. The Spaniard has his task cut out for next year.-AP

For Nadal, all along, in spite of his phenomenal exploits on clay and commendable displays on grass, it’s the U.S. Open that has really marked significant shifts in his career. By N. Sudarshan.

Rafael Nadal has had a lot going for him this season. He has won two Grand Slams out of four, five of the six Masters 1000 titles he has competed in, notched up a 61-3 win-loss record, including 22-0 on his least comfortable surface, the hard court. The latter mark is both his personal best and the best amongst his peers on the ATP World Tour.

All this after losing a good seven months last year to injury — a troublesome knee, a problem which has since been diagnosed as chronic. The achievements have catapulted the Spaniard to a position from where it seems a mere formality before he reclaims the top spot which he surrendered to Novak Djokovic in July 2011.

He trails by a mere 260 points with two more Masters tournaments and the World Tour Finals to go. The story is definitely incredible and the adulations that Nadal is basking in are wholly justified. Some experts even say that Nadal is now firmly back in the GOAT (greatest of all time) debate.

But here is the caveat. Tennis rankings being the way they are, the real weight of these performances and the accompanying pressure will be felt by Nadal only next year. Every week the rankings take into account the worth of one’s efforts in the preceding 52 weeks. The sheer number of points he will have to defend in 2014 – due to all the title wins in 2013 – will be huge. In addition he will have to do it overcoming the historical precedence of having floundered at the pinnacle even after turning in stupendous performances to reach there. So the question will be — how long can he keep beating both his opponents and his knee?

When Nadal lost to 135th ranked Steve Darcis in the first round at Wimbledon in June, in the backdrop of his loss to 100th ranked Lukas Rosol in the second round in the previous edition, it pointed to a mid-season ritual year on year. It looked as if his calendar year from then on would comprise two contrasting halves. The first that will include a gruelling but fulfilling clay season and the second accommodating less than satisfactory conquests on other surfaces. One to defend all those points accumulated on clay in the previous years and the other to rest and protect his knee.

However, with the pleasant surprise the second half of 2013 has been, where he has mastered the very same surface whose ‘stress-inducing’ qualities he has often bemoaned, he has his task cut out for next year. The big advantage that he has had so far is the absence of any baggage. While Djokovic, post-Wimbledon had 5810 points to defend through the year, Nadal had none.

The pressure that comes with having to better previous year’s performance every time you step on the court can be telling. Djokovic found out these harsh realities this year after two hugely successful seasons. Now going into the final two months of the season and into the 2014 Australian Open, Djokovic will have 5010 points to defend and Nadal again none.

However, should Nadal do well for the remainder of 2013 and Down Under the next year, in the process clinch the No. 1 ranking as well, he will have an extremely tough job living up to these standards.

The 27-year-old is no doubt capable enough, as most would agree. But the sticking point is him not having done well when at the top. As an under-study he has revelled, but having reached the summit twice, once each in 2008 and 2010, he has stayed there for just a combined 102 weeks. Just four of his 13 majors have come when ranked No. 1.

For Nadal, all along, in spite of his phenomenal exploits on clay and commendable displays on grass, it’s the U.S. Open that has really marked significant shifts in his career. In 2010, he won in New York for the first time beating Djokovic. He had raised his game a notch to show his remarkable all-court skills. The next year, he suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the Serb and the latter had really taken command.

But it was at the U.S. Open again that one could see him try different things, adapt and fight back. These qualities were visible against Djokovic in the 2012 Australian Open final which he should have probably won. The knee injury forced him out of Flushing Meadows in 2012.

So, 2013 seems a lot like 2010. A year in which Nadal has taken his tennis even higher, employing a more aggressive game, devising a successful plan to defeat his nemesis Djokovic and win the U.S. Open title again.

But will the next year be a deja vu or will Nadal rise even higher? Djokovic doesn’t seem a spent force and these two have a proven rivalry that has gone back and forth and might as well go so in the future.

Add to the mix, Andy Murray, whose victory at Wimbledon would have unburdened him manifold.

When Nadal was asked after the US Open victory, “how hungry was he after missing seven months,” he replied: “I was not that hungry, because I didn't think something like this could happen. I never thought about competing for all that I competed for this year, so it's just more than I dreamed. Feel very lucky for what happened since I come back.”

A bigger test awaits him next year, when he will compete to defend all that he has won so far this season and might win in the remaining two months.