Rafael Nadal in 2021: Loss to Djokovic, injuries, a sombre year

Affected by injuries, Rafael Nadal won two titles in 2021 but by his standards, he was below his absolute best

Rafael Nadal, for Tennis Majors 2021 review Rafael Nadal by © AI / Reuters / Panoramic / Tennis Majors

2021 was a nightmare year for Rafael Nadal, diminished by back pain at the start of the season and then halted by a foot injury mid-season. After losing in the French Open semi-finals to arch-rival Novak Djokovic, he played just one tournament before making the end of his season official in August.

Even in 2020, marked by six months off the tour due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Majorcan had played more (34 matches compared to 29). For the second year in a row, he lifted only two trophies. There were bright spots in a dreary season, though; a 12th title on his home ground in Barcelona and a 10th title in Rome.

But crucially, there was no Grand Slam title to add to his tally – an anomaly, when you consider that this has only happened three times (in 2004 for his first season as a pro, and in 2015 and 2016). In the meantime, Djokovic won three more majors and is tied with Djokovic and Federer on a record 20 slam titles.

  • Nadal’s Ranking at end of 2020: 2
  • Nadal’s Ranking at end of 2021: 6
  • Nadal’s Win-loss record in 2021: 24-5
  • Nadal’s Titles : 2
Rafael Nadal at Rome in 2021
Rafael Nadal, Rome 2021, © AI / REUTERS / PANORAMIC

Nadal’s Best performance: A 10th title in Rome with victory over Djokovic

Rafael Nadal’s best performance of the season came at the Foro Italico, where he lifted his 36th Masters 1000 against world No 1 Novak Djokovic, 7-5, 1-6, 6-3. In their first reunion since the French Open final the previous October, won by Nadal, the two men battled intensely in the first set, which lasted one hour, 14 minutes. Outplayed in the second set, Nadal then took advantage of a Djokovic slump, having played his quarter-final and semi-final on the same day the day before the final, with five hours of play in his legs.

On his way to the title, Nadal ousted some fine players; Jannik Sinner, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Reilly Opelka. His duel against Shapovalov, in particular, gave him a lot of confidence after coming back from a set and a break down and saving two match points to win 3-6, 6-4, 7-6.

The Majorcan earned himself a tenth title in Rome, the fourth tournament he has won 10 or more times, along with Monte Carlo (11), Barcelona (12) and, of course, the French Open (13).

Best result at a Grand Slam: Semi-final showing at Roland-Garros

Nadal only lined up for two of the four Grand Slams. After a quarter-final effort at the Australian Open, where he lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas after letting slip a two-sets lead, his best result came at the French Open, where he lost in the semi-finals to Novak Djokovic in a legendary match.

Prior to their semi-final, which in itself was befitting of any Grand Slam final, only Diego Schwartzman had managed to take a set off Nadal, who looked every inch like he would go on to win a record 14th Roland-Garros title. But Djokovic was a man inspired and the Serb triumphed after four hours, 11 minutes of breathtaking tennis. Affected, apparently, by a foot injury which he did not talk about right away, Nadal suffered his biggest disappointment.

Nadal’s best moment of the season: titles in Barcelona and Rome

Not surprisingly, Rafael Nadal was at his best on clay. After two months away from the circuit to treat his back after the Australian Open, he made his return in Monte Carlo, where he was surprisingly beaten by Andrey Rublev. But in the next tournament, in Barcelona, he gradually built up his confidence to win the title yet again on his home soil and reassure the world that he was in good shape.

In the final, he got his revenge on Stefanos Tsitsipas in what remains one of the matches of the year. The Greek pushed him to the absolute limit and had a match point in the third set but Nadal saved it and then broke to win 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 and win Barcelona for the 12th time.

Nadal only made two finals, both on clay (Barcelona and Rome), a disappointment by his own stratospheric standdards. But his 100 percent record in the two finals took his career tally to 88 titles, including 62 on clay.

Nadal’s worst moment(s) of the season: First his back hurt, then his foot stopped him

Rafael Nadal was plagued by physical ailments this year. He started the year at the Australian Open with back pain, which handicapped him in his matches and forced him to withdraw from several tournaments (Rotterdam, Dubai, Miami). Even after recovering and having great success on clay in the spring, it was his left foot that finally stopped him.

The semi-final loss to Djokovic at the French Open was a turning point. Six days later, Nadal announced that he would miss Wimbledon and the Olympics in order to preserve his body.

His return to competition was short-lived. In Washington, he won only one match, in pain, against Jack Sock, before being knocked out by Lloyd Harris. He then had losses in Toronto and Cincinnati and eventually, on August 20, he announced he would be withdrawing from the US Open and the rest of the season.

It was then that Nadal revealed he suffers from Muller-Weiss syndrome, a degenerative disease that causes a deformity of the scaphoid of the foot. It’s a problem he’s been carrying since 2005 and which has affected him, on and off, throughout his career. In September, Nadal received treatment at a Barcelona clinic and resumed training a month later.

Rafael Nadal off the court: A documentary at his academy, commitment to vaccination and support for athletes

Nadal was able to spend a lot of time on his home island of Mallorca this season, the place where he grew up and where he lives with his wife Xisca and his family. He trains at his academy in Manacor, run by his uncle Toni. In September, he presented the documentary about the Rafa Nadal Academy, broadcast by Amazon Prime.

He was also vocal about the need for people to get vaccinated against Covid-19. “I understand that there are people who do not want to be vaccinated,” he said. “But from my point of view, when you live situations and moments like the ones we are living, I think it is a bit selfish. We have suffered a lot, and maybe we don’t know 100 percent of the effects of vaccines, but we have to trust the doctors.”

His self-assessment: “I suffered much more than I should have”

“Honestly I’m coming off a year where I suffered much more than I should have with my foot and I need to give myself time,” Nadal announced in a statement posted on Twitter on August 20, 2021. “The only thing you can be sure of is that I will fight every day to get there. I still have a lot of good years left, I really think about it. I will be back, and I will be back the right way.”

“I still have a lot of good years left”

Rafael Nadal

Tennis Majors’ view: Nadal likely to bounce back in 2022

It was a difficult year for Rafael Nadal, who turned 35 in June. But even in his diminished state, the Majorcan achieved some good results before closing the season early. At the Grand Slams, only an excellent Stefanos Tsitsipas in Australia and a Djokovic at his best managed to break him after two close matches.

The Spaniard still has the desire and has already proven in the past that he is capable of returning to his best level after injuries. With the title of best player of all time at stake, he will not give Djokovic the opportunity to overtake him in the battle for most majors without a fight.

In this area, one thing is certain, he can be counted on.

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