After Rafael Nadal‘s loss at the 2015 Miami Open, it was pretty much set that he’d be moving down the ATP rankings to Number 5 from Number 3, and today it’s been made real. The Spaniard has had his ups and downs the past couple years, but fans are still ready to keep pushing him back up the charts. Can he make it back up to even number 4, that’s something we’ll discuss.
Not only did Novak Djokovic tie Nadal on the list of most weeks at No. 1 with 141 (and is guaranteed to pass Rafa next Monday) but after Nadal’s early exit in Miami, he slipped two spots in the rankings, falling behind Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori. And this isn’t merely some cosmetic fall in the rankings, such as when college football or basketball teams slip in either poll in the middle of the season. This has major ramifications for Nadal, the upcoming European clay-court season and it’s culmination in Roland Garros for the French Open.
If Nadal is No. 5, he could see Novak Djokovic as early as a quarterfinal, a player such as Nishikori in the semis and Federer in the finals. Though Federer has never been a clay-court beast and is far from a dominant force on the surface, that’s still a murderer’s row. With a No. 4 ranking, Nadal is guaranteed to not see Federer or Djokovic until the semifinals, at the earliest.
So can Rafa move up to No. 4? It’s mostly out of his hands, but it looks like it’ll be a tough battle. Nadal, despite his (relatively) disappointing clay-court season in 2014, is still defending 1,870 points before the French.
Murray has an 805-point lead on Nadal and is only defending 270 points between here and Roland Garros. Essentially, Nadal can’t make the pass unless Murray plays extremely poorly and Nadal sweeps the three Masters 1000 events.
Nishikori, on the other hand, has a narrow 25-point lead over Nadal, something Rafa could overcome in one round of one tournament. And that might be what happens. Nishikori is defending winners’ points at Barcelona (500 points) while Nadal lost in the quarters.
But that forgets about the tournament that precedes Barcelona: Monte Carlo. Nishikori didn’t play in Monte Carlo last year, but is on the schedule for this year. Nadal is only defending quarterfinal points. But if Nishikori makes a run, he could tighten up, or take control of, the race. Nishikori also didn’t play the finale in Rome due to injury. Rafa finished with 600 points for being runner-up. There’s no word on whether Nishikori will play there, but you’d have to assume he will. That will be a golden opportunity to pick up free points on Nadal.
The real battle comes in Madrid, which both are expected to play. Nadal won it last year in a walkover against Nishikori, meaning Nadal has 1,000 points to defend and Nishikori has 600. Perhaps our question is decided here. An early exit by either would essentially clinch No. 4 for the other. Then again, if Nishikori wins Monte Carlo, maybe he’ll have things wrapped up well before Rome.
So what’s going to happen? I think Nadal, despite his recent woes, still does well enough to make up the minor gap with Nishikori, free Nishikori points at Monte Carlo and Rome be damned. There’s too much “Nishikori makes a deep run” in these scenarios. Still, that doesn’t mean Nishikori can’t do it and lead to the ridiculous site of the nine-time champion and five-time defending champ at Roland Garros entering the tournament as a ridiculous No. 5 seed. But that’s just numerical nonsense caused by a disappointing hard-court season: Nadal is still the king of clay until he gets dethroned at the French.