A year ago, nobody in the world knew what to make of Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard that came into our lives a clay court champion and left a guy that could dominate every surface.
Nadal plays tennis like Derrick Rose plays basketball, with absolutely no regard for his self or his body, a mentality to simply get to every single ball hit to him and get it over the net with a ferocious pace and insane spin. Nadal was the opposite of Roger Federer and he embraced it, but the toll his body took finally caught up to him, and a knee injury kept him out of both the 2012 Olympics and the U.S. Open.
Health continued to be a problem as the tennis world flipped the calendar to 2013 and the Australian Open, a second Grand Slam that Nadal would skip, this time for a stomach virus.
Tennis is a cruel game, and no matter how special you once were, the fans and eyeballs and sponsors can move on as fast as age can catch up to a champion, so with Nadal gone it was Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic that took over as the best in the world. Federer's reign was slipping faster than most had hoped, and the '13 Australian Open finals gave us what looked like the future of Grand Slam finals with Murray and Djokovic going at it.
Nadal had become a question instead of a factor, with most wondering if we'd ever see the then 11-time Grand Slam champion return to the form that made him the best in the world.
Those questions were answered rather quickly when Nadal made his return to the VTR Open and made the finals. It was the start of a ridiculous '13 for the 27-year-old, who made 13 finals in 16 completed events this year including 10 titles, none more important than the U.S. Open at the end of the season.
Nadal's win at the French Open coupled with that triumph at the U.S. Open over Djokovic not only meant he was back, but that the Spaniard has an outside shot at catching the 17 Grand Slam titles of Federer before his career is done (Nadal sits comfortably at 13 right now).
Now, with his win over Stanislas Wawrinka on Wednesday at the ATP World Finals, Nadal locked up the No. 1 ranking for the year, becoming just the third player ever to finish the year with the top ranking after relinquishing that spot to another player.
When he's locked in, Nadal is still the best tennis player in the world, and as long as he can keep that health up for two more years I definitely think he has a shot at tying, and possibly passing, Federer with those 17 majors.
Even if he doesn't, the return to form for Nadal has been absolutely incredible and the story of the year on the men's side of tennis.
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