Rafael Nadal's return to Abu Dhabi a fitting way to mark his return to the top

The Spaniard is in strong position after his US Open victory to go on and end the year as world No 1.

Tennis - US Open - Mens  Final - New York, U.S. - September 10, 2017 - Rafael Nadal of Spain in action against Kevin Anderson of South Africa. REUTERS/Mike Segar
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It feels fitting that Rafael Nadal will end his year, likely as world No 1, in December at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi.

It was in the UAE capital at the end of 2016 that the first signs emerged of what was to unfold this season as Nadal dispelled doubts over his longevity and fitness to rediscover the form that saw him operate at the top of men's tennis for more than a decade.

Granted, the tournament is an exhibition so Nadal's performances need to be viewed with a degree of context, but watching him on court at the Abu Dhabi International Complex was heartening given how limited he had looked just a few months earlier.

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Troubled by a wrist injury, Nadal had lost in the fourth round of the US Open, the quarter-finals of the China Open in straight sets to Grigor Dimitrov, and then surrendered in meek fashion to Viktor Troicki at the Shanghai Masters in the second round in early October.

Nadal then took the decision not to play again for the rest of the ATP schedule as he looked to rest and allow his body to recover.

It proved inspired and his performances in Abu Dhabi, as he swept to the title, were the first signs that he was returning to action rejuvenated even though he had slipped to No 9 in the rankings.

While other players appeared rusty, Nadal was immediately on it, playing with the intensity often associated with a grand slam final and not a season warm-up event. He bageled Tomas Berdych in the first set of their first-round match, broke Milos Raonic twice in the first set of their semi-final, before beating David Goffin in straight sets in the final.

Nadal, 31, had set the tone for his season. He took his form to Melbourne where he was runner-up to Roger Federer at the Australian Open, and he has never looked back.

Nadal dominated the clay-court season, winning a 10th French Open, and returned to world No 1 for the first time in three years in August. Then came Sunday's icing on the cake when he won a 16th grand slam title by beating Kevin Anderson in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 in the US Open final.

With a lead of 1,960 ranking points in the ATP standings over nearest rival Federer, it looks almost certain Nadal will carry the No 1 spot through to the end of the year, and will arrive in Abu Dhabi in that position when he bids to win the Mubadala title for a fifth time.

With two 1000 events in Shanghai and Paris, as well as 500 events in Beijing and Vienna, and ATP World Tour Finals in November, there are, in theory, still plenty of points available for Federer to try and overhaul Nadal.

Federer has no ranking points to defend between now and January so every match he wins will see him increase his total of 7,505, but Nadal has only 135 points to defend from his tally of 9,465 as well.

Federer will therefore need to go on a run similar to that of Andy Murray 12 months ago, when the Briton won his final 25 matches of the year, if he is to have a chance of knocking Nadal off top spot.

Given that he looked to be physically limited in New York, after tweaking his back last month, it is questionable if Federer would even try a hectic schedule in pursuit of No 1. The timetable he chooses will give a fair indicator of how interested he is in that particular challenge.

Even then, Nadal's form would need to nosedive, and given how strongly he finished the US Open, that scenario is hard to envisage.

Federer has managed his body and schedule carefully all year and yet it still let him down in the build-up to Flushing Meadows, which is understandable at the age of 36.

The irony is that it in the past it has been Nadal's body that has so often let him down, with knee and wrist problems causing lengthy spells on the sidelines.

But in a year when Federer (back), Djokovic (elbow), Murray (hip), Stan Wawrinka (knee) and Kei Nishikori (wrist) have all hit trouble, Nadal is the last man standing.

He has played 65 matches, has not deliberately missed tournaments to allow himself to recover physically, and he has become a force once again.

The question now is if this is a short renaissance or if Nadal is back at the top for a good while to come.

Next year promises to be a lot of fun with Djokovic and Murray looking to rediscover their best form after long spells out with injury, while Federer continues to defy his age and be a contender.

Nadal will welcome the challenge. He has already said being fully-fit again is enough of a reward. But he will be confident, given his current level of play, of adding to his 16 majors in 2018 and closing in on Federer's record of 19.

But before then will be his return to the UAE in December and finishing the year where the rise back to the top began.