Commentary

Nadal overcomes impossible odds

After 7½ months out of the game, Spaniard ends 2013 as the top-ranked player

Updated: November 6, 2013, 8:35 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Stanislas Wawrinka is a nice little tennis player.

He's won 50 matches this year, a first for the 28-year-old, and he played his way into the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, no small accomplishment.

Wawrinka even pushed No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal into a first-set tiebreaker Wednesday, but -- predictably -- couldn't convert. And when that fleeting chance evaporated, the usually mild-mannered Swiss player smashed his racket in frustration.

[+] Enlarge Rafael Nadal
AP Photo/Sang TanRafael Nadal did not play the Aussie Open and lost in the Wimbledon opener, yet finished the year No. 1.
In a varied catalogue that began with a third-round meeting in the 2007 Australian Open, Wawrinka, the No. 7 World Tour seed, has had zero success against Nadal. That racket-snapping session was the 25th straight set Wawrinka dropped to Rafa. The 26th, another taut tiebreaker fashioned at London's O2 Arena, had a decisive impact on men's tennis.

Nadal officially clinched the year-end No. 1 ranking with a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (6) win, following his turns at the top in 2008 and 2010. He is the first player to hold, lose and regain the year-end No. 1 ranking two different times. As his season has progressed, Nadal has downplayed the No. 1 ranking and what it would mean to him.

On Wednesday, his smiles, body language and words said otherwise.

"That's the real thing," Nadal said afterward. "Because at the end during all my season, I said is not my goal, but the real thing is after all the success I had during the season -- winning five Masters 1000s, playing a final in another, winning a few 500s, playing another final, winning two Grand Slams -- so I think that after all what happened last year, I felt I deserved to be there at the end of the season.

"And today I did."

When the 2013 season began, it did not seem remotely possible. Incredibly, Rafa:

• Did not play the Australian Open.
• Returned to the ATP tour in February with a ranking of No. 5 after a seven-month sabbatical because of a knee injury.
• Lost in the first round at Wimbledon when his knee injury flared up again.

Yet here he is.

"So was one of the best things that I did in my career: Come back to the No. 1 after three seasons," Nadal said, sounding like he meant it. "That's very difficult in our sport, and after a very important injury. That's an emotional thing for me, for sure.

"And the good thing is after two matches now, I can really be focused only on the tournament because the year end is over."

Nadal is the only player to currently hold two majors (the French Open and the US Open) and he has a 2013 record of 73-6 with 10 overall titles.

As the score of his match versus Wawrinka suggests, it wasn't easy. Wawrinka was serving in the first set at 2-all when he had a terrible game, double-faulting to give Rafa the break. In the penultimate point of the tiebreaker, Nadal tracked down a lob and hit so deft a winner that, watching the replay later, he still wasn't sure how he got it.

"Finally, I was able to get the ball and put the ball in a dream place, because I could not put the ball in a better place from that position," Rafa explained. "He was unlucky the next point. He make a bad movement on the net. Second set the same.

"At the end was very, very close everything. But I think I played with the right determination the important moments, especially the second set to win the match."

Two points each in two sets. That margin underlines why Nadal has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles, and Wawrinka -- now 0-12 against the Spaniard -- is still looking for his first.

Wawrinka complained to the umpire that Toni Nadal was coaching his nephew from his seat.

"We all know, players and umpire, that Toni is always trying to help Rafa," Wawrinka said later. "That's normal. That's part of the game. But when it's too much, it's too much.

"Today I didn't agree with the umpire that he didn't tell him something or he didn't give him second warning just because it was Rafa. We all see. I was there. Before every point, he was trying to coach him. Normally the umpire should have done something."

Rafa is into the Barclay's semifinal for the fourth time; he has never won this event, losing to Roger Federer in the 2010 final after winning his first four matches.

The other spot in the Group A semifinal will be determined Friday. Wawrinka (1-1) plays No. 3 David Ferrer (0-1), while Nadal (2-0) gets No. 5 Tomas Berdych (0-1).

A year ago, Nadal was sitting at home in Mallorca, wondering what his future held.

"The thoughts about the future?" he mused. "Just focus on recover, focus on try to find a solution for my knee, and that's it. Working every day, trying to do different things to try to be back. And finally, even if I was not with my 100 percent at the beginning, because I fly to Viña del Mar [Chile] without the best feeling, but I was able to play again. And here we are after 10 months or eight months.

"So very happy for everything."

Ferrer fades again

In his seventh tournament in seven weeks, at the end of a remarkable run, David Ferrer finally hit the wall in London.

The No. 3 seed lost in straight sets for the second time in as many matches, 6-4, 6-4, to No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych. Just last week, Ferrer prevailed over the Czech player in a Paris masters quarterfinal that went three sets.

Berdych, whose serve was way off in his opening match with Stanislas Wawrinka, took care of that critical part of his game and his forehand came alive, too.

Technically, Ferrer still has a match left with Wawrinka, but he won't be making the trip to the semifinals. The 1-1 Berdych, meanwhile, still has some life. Sort of. He'll face Rafael Nadal on Friday -- daunting, unless you consider that Nadal (2-0) has already clinched a spot in the semifinals and the No. 1 ranking.

New order for doubles

Defending doubles champions Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, the No. 4-seeded team, are out after losing to No. 2 Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares, 3-6, 6-4, 10-5.

The No. 6-seeded team of David Marrero and Fernando Verdasco of Spain took a decisive lead in Group B with a 6-4, 7-6 (5) victory over No. 7 Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek. The Spaniards are the only undefeated team in Group B at 2-0.

Standings, through Day 3

Note: Players in each group will meet once each to determine the four semifinalists.

Group A
(1) Rafael Nadal 2-0*
(5) Tomas Berych 1-1
(7) Stanislas Wawrinka 1-1
(3) David Ferrer 0-2

Group B (2) Novak Djokovic 1-0
(4) Juan Martin del Potro 1-0
(6) Roger Federer 0-1
(8) Richard Gasquet 0-1

* Clinched spot in semifinals

Forward spin: Day Four

Where else can you watch a Wimbledon semifinal -- on a Thursday afternoon?

That's essentially what we have today (ESPN2, 3 p.m. ET) with No. 2 Novak Djokovic versus No. 4 Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic holds a 10-3 edge on the tall Argentine, but the last three times they've played, all this year -- Indian Wells, Wimbledon, Shanghai -- they've all gone the distance. In the semifinal at the All England Club, del Potro lost a draining, 4-hour, 43-minute match in five sets that probably was responsible for the ease of Andy Murray's straights-sets win in the final.

The second day match features six-time champion and No. 6 seed Roger Federer against. No. 8 Richard Gasquet. The loser will not reach the semifinals. Federer has a commanding 10-2 edge in head-to-head meetings.

The No. 1-seeded team of Bob and Mike Bryan (0-1) must win against Aisam-Ul Haq Qureshi and Jean-Julien Rojer if they want a chance to advance.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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