Plagued by injuries, which have led to inconsistent play throughout 2015, No. 9 Rafael Nadal narrowly walked away with his third singles title of the year by defeating Fabio Fognini 7-5 7-5 at the Hamburg Open in Germany over the weekend.
The 29-year-old Spaniard improved his record to 39-12 on the year and moved up a spot in the men’s rankings, all while building momentum towards the U.S. Open later this month. Perhaps it can be forgiven, after his early exit from the French Open and Wimbledon, that Nadal played on his preferred surface of clay. His recent struggles this year suggest he needed to regain his swagger, and he seemed to have gotten some of it back in Germany.
Nadal returned to Hamburg for the first time in eight years, with hopes of rediscovering the fluidity, rhythm, and strength that made him one of the most dominant players the game has ever seen. Though he didn’t take on a member of the “Big Four,” or even a top-20 player in the ATP rankings, Nadal was excited about the win.
“It was a great final, up and down, so I hope that people enjoyed it,” Nadal said as he fought off a cramp in his thigh, according to The Guardian. “Coming back to Hamburg after eight years was a big challenge and excitement for me.”
No, the match and its surface won't equal the pounding and difficulty of the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, but that wasn’t really the point for Nadal.
The clay master needed to get his legs and confidence back to make sure 2015 wasn’t a complete wash. And Fognini, who beat Nadal twice on clay already this year in Rio and Barcelona, was perhaps the best opponent for Nadal to pick on before flying to New York. The Italian committed 60 unforced errors throughout the match, and still challenged Nadal deep into both sets while the "King of Clay" committed 27 unforced errors of his own.
Now Nadal can focus on the U.S., even if preparing for the grand slam by playing a clay-court tournament might leave a few head scratches. The point was more or less to string together some victories, which Nadal certainly did against No. 30 Pablo Cuevas, No. 24 Andreas Seppi, and Fognini in the final three rounds in Germany.
Nadal would actually deflect a question about the upcoming hard-court season, and spoke more about the Hamburg victory than the near future.
"I don't know. I won an important title on clay, I want to enjoy that,” Nadal said according to ESPN. “It was my third one of the year. It was my biggest [of the year] yet."
The title also marked Nadal’s second of the year in Germany, having previously taken the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart on grass back in June as the lead up to Wimbledon. Though he would follow up that win with a first-round blunder against Alexandr Dolgopolov at the Aegon Championships in London days later, and then endured the four-set meltdown loss to American Dustin Brown in the second round of Wimbledon.
Whether he’ll publicly acknowledge it or not, the hard-court season equally serves as a way for Nadal to save his year and prevent his body from further injury. He’s dealt with knee, ankle, and back injuries over the last few years, and while Nadal hasn’t missed any significant amount of time since 2012, playing on clay has afforded him less wear and tear on his legs.
There’s three more tournaments leading up to the U.S., with Montreal, Cincinnati as well as Winston-Salem, North Carolina, all potentially breeding grounds for Nadal to prepare his body for hard-court play. Back in 2013, arguably his best year, Nadal would carry over titles from the Canada and Cincinnati tournaments into the second U.S. Open title of his career.