Wasn't it just a few months ago that critics were blasting Rafael Nadal's eleven-month title drought, claiming his run among the tennis elite was over?
Oh, how things have changed.
Earlier Sunday, the world #1 captured his seventh trophy of the year when he defeated Gael Monfils at the Japan Open. In his Tokyo debut, Rafa saved two match points in the semis against Victor Troicki, but ultimately battled through Monfils in straight sets, winning in about eighty minutes. And while that makes him the winningest player on Tour in 2010, it only marks the third most prolific yearsince turning pro -- he won eight championships in 2008, when he captured even Olympic gold, and a staggering eleven in 2005, when he was just starting to make a name for himself.
Even still, one could argue that this might be the best year of Rafa's career. Of course, after sweeping the clay court season, he made a more-than-successful return at Wimbledon earlier in the summer and his win in New York earned him a historic Grand Slam last month. He's sealed in the year-end top spot for the second time and was the first to qualify for the London championships next month. And he's won Majors on three different surfaces in the same year -- a feat even long-time rival Roger Federer has not accomplished.
And while his title count might be lower in 2010, that's less a function of his performance on Tour than of his smart scheduling choices, ones that will hopefully keep him off the disabled list for some time. Well rested and even better-trained, Nadal has put together a fantastic 66-8 record this year and hasn't lost before the quarters at any tournament, despite facing some tough opponents even in early rounds. He didn't play a single tournament between Australia and Indian Wells while he recovered from that nagging knee injury, and skipped Barcelona, where he was the five-time defending champion, back in the spring. He only played two hard court events leading up to the U.S. Open, and is actually putting in the most face time on the Asian leg of the Tour.
Rafa heads to China this week where he'll play the Shanghai Masters -- it's the first time all year he's put together three back-to-back events. And though he has a bye in the first round, he'll be forced to get right back to work, facing either Stanislas Wawrinka or a resurgent Gilles Simon in the second round.
Hopefully his body will be able to handle it -- I'd certainly want to see this year end on a high note.