Rafael Nadal: Can the listing galleon be righted?

Though he has regressed beyond belief in the recent past, at 29 Rafael Nadal is still relatively young. The forthcoming hard-court Masters in Indian Wells and Miami are places where he has done well. The ensuing clay season is one that he ruled like a feudal lord. But for someone whose issues, paradoxically, seem more mental than physical, can he erase the psychological scar of having lost to Novak Djokovic nine times in the last 10 matches? It will be a pity if he can’t, for nobody wants Nadal reduced to mere nostalgia.

Would it help Nadal if the height of the net is lowered? The Spaniard tries to get a new perspective.   -  REUTERS

In sport, a ‘natural’ is the most attractive of athletes. A ‘natural’ is someone who, from the outset, looks like an athlete; the ‘born to play’ type. Within this realm fall a certain Roger Federer, a Sachin Tendulkar and their ilk. Their successes are often explained away as fruits of their ‘talent’. Federer’s serves, his forehand and the one-handed backhand are all ‘God-given’. So are Tendulkar’s drives and flicks. What this does is to completely mask the struggle behind it. “It comes to them so naturally and even without trying,” it is said.

Contrast this with a certain Rafael Nadal or a Rahul Dravid. Their successes are explained in terms of strengths not talent. They are never the blessed lot. Their skills have been meticulously and repetitively honed over a period of time with each iterative exercise resulting in an incremental gain.

At their best these two sets of athletes are equally effective. On occasions, Nadal and Dravid even proved that ‘will’ can indeed triumph over the so-called ‘skill’. But when they age, when the body and the mind both show signs of fatigue it is certainly not a pleasant sight.

An old Federer or an old Tendulkar, though not always on top of their games, could still exhilarate a fan; like Federer’s superb third set against Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final. Can the same be said of the other two? Their will would no doubt shine. But would the skill?

This is the predicament Nadal currently finds himself in. “In terms of being competitive, I was competitive,” he said after his five-set loss to Fernando Verdasco in the first round in Melbourne. “In terms of creating damage to the opponent with my forehand, I didn’t. So I was hitting forehands, and he was able to keep hitting winners.

“Cannot happen when I am hitting my forehand. The opponent, if he wants to hit a winner is because he take too much risk. In my opinion was not the case of today. I was hitting winners. I was hitting forehands. He was able to keep going for big shots in a not very bad position.

“That was the biggest issue for me today. I don’t know a hundred percent the reason, to be honest. I was doing that good on the practices and the previous tournaments. Was not the case today.”

> Read: Nadal's five recent losses

At his best, Nadal would grind his opponents down into an unrecognisable heap of dust. He once even bageled Federer in a French Open final. But in the last year and a half he has regressed beyond belief. In the past he used to lose it at times. Now he just loses; to Fabio Fognini after being two-sets-to-love and a break up, to Dustin Brown, to Feliciano Lopez, to Verdasco, to Dominic Thiem and even Pablo Cuevas. For so long, he had in him an element of swagger, a fear-factor. Now every player he faces is in the game.

 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Spaniard was impregnable in his heyday. The twin Australian Open losses — to Fernando Gonzalez in 2007 and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga in 2008 — and to Juan Martin Del Potro at the U.S. Open in 2009 were all straight-set blow-outs in which he was literally blasted off the court.

But his recovery following crushing defeats was astonishing. How else do you explain these titles the ‘one-court pony’ won — two Wimbledons after having lost to Federer in the final twice, two U.S. Opens in 2010 and ’13 and one Australian Open in 2009.

When Nadal struggled in early 2015 his near-miraculous ability to come back was again expected to be on show. However, worryingly, it hasn’t. Now he even lets leads slip like he did against both Fognini and Verdasco. If the latter half of 2015 was encouraging, the first six weeks of 2016 have ensured that even an ember was difficult to find. His record in his last six five-set matches is 2-4. For a man whose career five-set record is 17-7 this is telling.

“The game is changing a little bit,” he explained. “Everybody now tries to hit all the balls. There is no balls that you can prepare the point, no? Everybody hit the ball hard and try to go for the winners in any position. Game become a little bit more crazy in this aspect.

“But the real thing is my mission is make them play with difficult positions. So if they want to go for lot of winners with very difficult positions, the chance of having success is not very high. If I let them hit from good positions and they obviously wants to go for winners, then the chances for success are much higher.”

The game may well be evolving as Nadal said. But consider this: perhaps no current player has had to change gears and make as many tactical switches as Nadal has had to do. An aggressive Federer was tamed at his peak courtesy a nagging but effective defensive game. And after Djokovic had that phenomenal year in 2011, Nadal bested him in 2013 and ’14 playing perhaps his most aggressive tennis.

So is he incapable of doing it anymore? The commonly held out — even a bit simplistic — explanation is that his top-spin game has now been found out and that he needs to hit flatter and with more power. But Nadal’s game isn’t built on power. The difference between his defensive and aggressive styles is in positioning, depth, work on the ball and shot selection. At present he is in a muddle; neither here nor there.

His defensive game might not be as prudent an option anymore, principally due to his slower-than-before footwork, but his top-spin game coupled with a good serve — this, more than his forehand, has been Nadal’s biggest concern of late — can still keep him competitive.

“I was practicing little bit different, trying to be more inside the court,” Nadal said. “It’s obvious that all the changes are not easy and especially are difficult to make that happen when you are competing. But the real thing is if I am not doing that, then I am dead.

“I can play defensive or offensive. But if you stay in the middle, finally, at the end of the day, you are not doing nothing. You cannot be in the middle of being offensive or defensive, because it is obvious that finally you don’t have a consistent strategy, then you are lost.”

“Rafael Nadal has always been a very anxious player who needs to win matches to be reassured,” Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, told SI. “As long as he doesn’t win enough matches in a row, he doesn’t have the needed confidence for his shots to do their usual damage.

“This forehand issue? We’ve seen it 50 times already. But we weren’t worried…. I feel like I’ve been talking for 10 years about how short he plays when he’s tight. And he was still beating top players this way because the guys were so scared and wouldn’t step up inside the court. In the past he has only been aggressive when he was full of confidence.

“It’s tough to see what the way for him is here,” he went on. “But it’s not even an option for him to stop working with Toni at this moment of his career. But if Toni wants to bring someone into their team, why not?”

If such a collaborative arrangement can lead to better things for Djokovic and Federer, then why not for Nadal?

“I just think Rafa needs to get a little bit of a different view point,” Larry Stefanki, a celebrated coach told CNN. “Not getting rid of uncle Toni, either. I don’t think that’s a good thing. He should probably stay around.”

Even assuming that Nadal gets this concoction right, the challenge of dethroning Djokovic is a tough row to hoe. At 29 he is still relatively young. The forthcoming hard-court Masters in Indian Wells and Miami are places where he has done well. The ensuing clay season is one that he ruled like a feudal lord.

But for someone whose issues, paradoxically, seem more mental than physical, can he erase the psychological scar of having lost to Djokovic nine times in the last 10 matches? It will be a pity if he can’t, for nobody wants Nadal reduced to mere nostalgia.