Rafael Nadal suffered his latest setback by crashing out in the fourth round of the U.S. Open earlier this month. The Spaniard lost a five-set thriller to Lucas Pouille, extending his drought without reaching the final of a Grand Slam to his last 10 such competitions.
Nadal appeared poised to threaten Roger Federer’s all-time record of 17 slam winner’s trophies when he triumphed at the French Open in 2014, winning his 14th major title. However, numerous injuries and a lack of form have seen him fail to compete on the big stages and that has consequently resulted in a slide down the world rankings to fifth.
At the age of 30, Nadal faces a challenge to recapture his best on the court and make one final surge to topple Federer’s record. The current dominance of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at the top of the sport will make that feat especially tough to accomplish.
Nadal’s best opportunity to get back on track has to be the French Open, which he has dominated—winning the tournament nine out of the 12 times he has competed at Roland Garros. So if you’re betting on tennis in 2017, it might be prudent to back Nadal at 11/2 to triumph in Paris again and end his struggles on the big stage.
The former world No. 1 was at the peak of his powers in 2010, when he won three of the year’s four slams, missing out only at the Australian Open with a quarterfinal loss. Nadal was only 24 for much of that season, already had nine majors crowns under his belt, and looked to be a safe bet to challenge Federer for slam titles at the end of their careers.
The rise of Djokovic in 2011 prevented Nadal from repeating his feat of the previous year, as the Serb defeated him in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. They met again in the 2012 Australian Open title match, with Djokovic surviving an epic five-setter in Melbourne before Nadal avenged that setback with a four-set victory in the French Open final.
Unfortunately, 2012 marked the beginning of injury problems for the Spaniard—beginning with a stunning Wimbledon loss at the hands of Lukas Rosol. Problems with his knee forced him to withdraw from the U.S. Open, abruptly closing the season on a low note. After missing the 2013 Australian Open, Nadal returned to his best form at Roland Garros and outlasted Djokovic in a memorable semifinal contest. That set up a clash against compatriot David Ferrer, which went the way of Nadal in routine fashion.
Not unlike the previous season, 2013 proved to be a year of highs and lows as the the Mallorca native’s troubles on grass continued with a first-round exit at Wimbledon to Steve Darcis. However, his response was emphatic—producing his best form at the U.S. Open to outduel Djokovic in a four-set final in Arthur Ashe Stadium to win the tournament for a second time.
Restored as world No. 1, Nadal eased his way into the final of the 2014 Australian Open, dropping just one set in the process. Stan Wawrinka stood in his way of a 14th major title and the Swiss produced the performance of his career to claim a four-set win, blasting Nadal away with his power.
The Spaniard bounced back to capture his ninth crown at the French Open, fending off Djokovic’s best attempt to unseat him after losing the opening set to win in four. The victory has proven to be his last major to date, as injuries and his form in crucial moments have deserted him.
Even Nadal’s dominance at Roland Garros has been worn away following a defeat in the 2015 quarterfinals and a withdrawal in the third round this season. As a result, Nadal will have to work incredibly hard on his fitness to regain his edge at the majors and avoid the prospect of ending his time at the top with a whimper.
Injuries have played a major role in his decline, diminishing his ability to remain competitive in extended rallies—which was for so long the hallmark of his game. His energy on court has also suffered, leaving him vulnerable in the latter stages of matches; that, for example, allowed Pouille to clinch his win in five sets.
Nadal still has a strong tactical mind in addition to a vicious forehand, and he will need to maximize those attributes in order to challenge Djokovic and Murray at the top of the game. The 30-year-old still remains a fine player—especially on clay—and the eyes of the world will be on him at Roland Garros next year to see if he can clinch crown number 10 in Paris.