If Novak Djokovic didn't exist, Rafael Nadal probably would have had another incredible season. Only problem is that Djokovic does exist, and that's a problem. However, it's a new season, and as they say, the past is the past. Will Rafa return to the form that saw him win three Slammies in 2010, or will he again succumb to the sublime Serb?
How will the Davis Cup championship affect Nadal going forward in 2012?
Greg Garber: Not in a good way. Although Djokovic found a new confidence in leading Serbia to the Davis Cup title in 2010, vaulting him into the best season of his career, Rafa is a bit banged up, mentally and physically. After leading Spain to its third title in four years in 2011, Nadal said he would sit out this year's edition of Davis Cup. He has a sore shoulder and a bruised psyche from failing in all six matches against Djokovic and plans to rest for a few weeks after the Australian Open.
Kamakshi Tandon: It probably won't have quite the effect winning the Davis Cup did for Djokovic, which kick-started the Serb's dominant 2011 season. Both Spain and Nadal had won the Davis Cup before, so there wasn't quite the same euphoria. And the final was played on clay, so it didn't exactly take him out of his comfort zone. If anything, the final probably hurt Nadal's preparation for the upcoming season by costing him a week of training time and forcing a surface switch in between two hard-court stretches. But winning is always better than losing, so at least he ended the season on a positive note.
Ravi Ubha: Nadal needed a confidence boost to end last season, and that's what he got in Seville. However, it probably won't lead to the season Djokovic had after he led Serbia to the Davis Cup title. For starters, Nadal says his shoulder is bothering him. If that's indeed the case, I can't see him winning in Melbourne. He might be able to get away with subpar serve speeds versus most players, but not against the true elite. Shoulder injuries can linger. And winning the Davis Cup title won't help him in trying to figure out how to beat Djokovic.
Matt Wilansky: No doubt about it. Winning fosters confidence, and that's exactly what Nadal needed -- even more than rest. We talk often about the lack of offseason in tennis, but he's had over a month to regroup, relax and rehab. That's more downtime than the average Joe gets in an entire year. Also, don't forget Nadal had to overcome mental hurdles versus Juan Martin del Potro in a four-set doozy, which clinched the tie. Does this automatically mean he'll have a Djokovic-esque year? Not at all, but it won't hurt him one bit.
Can anyone stop Nadal (even Nadal) from winning a seventh French Open title?
Garber: No. He's won an astonishing 45 of 46 matches at Roland Garros, and after this year's tournament, he'll be 52-for-53. Those who predicted he could win six or seven French Opens actually might have been too conservative. Rafa's game and historic mental strength are perfect for the grinding game needed to win on clay. Even if he's a little nicked up, he'll find a way.
Tandon: Hmm,. Nadal played relatively poorly during last year's French Open and still won, which shows how formidable he remains on clay. But Djokovic beat him twice on clay and he was pushed by del Potro. And there's the usual concern about injuries and fatigue. In an interview with El Pais recently, the Spaniard talked about needing to recover that little "extra something" and has switched to a heavier racket to add power. He could take some time to adjust to the new stick and will be taking February off to rest his shoulder. But clay should still be a safe haven for him.
Ubha: Uh, yes. We need only look at last year's clay-court campaign in which Djokovic not only beat Nadal in Madrid and Rome, but handled him comfortably. I'm convinced that if Djokovic had downed Roger Federer in the French Open semis last year, he would have overcome -- or rather, eased past -- Nadal in the finale. Djokovic has made a lot of progressing on clay. If del Potro gets fitter, he could also take out Nadal over five sets.
Wilansky: The only viable candidate who can bury Nadal in the dirt is Djokovic. And this assumes the Serb plays at the same level he did in 2011. Not going to happen. So the simple answer is no one can stop Rafa's inexorable march toward lucky No. 7 at Roland Garros. But in the interest of hedging our bets, all good things must come to an end; it's just unlikely it'll happen in 2012. But ask me June 10, and I'll let you know for sure.
Fill in the blank: Rafael Nadal will end 2012 ranked No. …
Garber: Against my better judgment, put me down for No. 1. Djokovic is defending an enormous amount of points and history says he'll have a tough time doing it. If Rafa can win in Paris, snag a few more Masters titles and get to another Slam final, he should be good to go. Federer is a fair distance back at No. 3, and players such as Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and del Potro should play well enough to tighten up the top.
Tandon: No. 2. The only thing that stood between him and a great 2011 was Djokovic, and he easily could turn around his losing record with a few tactical and mental improvements. That's almost to be expected at some point. But this year's schedule is extra busy, thanks to the Olympics. Playing well throughout will be a mental and physical challenge.
Ubha: I'm convinced that Djokovic will back up his fine 2011 in style. That means Nadal won't be able to regain the No. 1 ranking -- at any stage in 2012. Nadal worried his fans by saying he lost a little motivation after the U.S. Open, but I'd be more concerned about the injuries that keep cropping up. Getting the shoulder better and peaking during the clay swing would seem to be a plan.
Wilansky: Djokovic has a lot of points to defend, but he also has a comfortable lead over Nadal. It's going to take a pretty desultory season for Djokovic to concede the top spot, even if he doesn't win multiple Slams or rack up Masters Series shields the way he did in 2011. If Nadal decides to play a conservative schedule (and it's a possibility with the Olympics on the horizon), he may not have enough time to catch Djokovic. Rafa will end the year No. 2, albeit he'll cut into the lead.