In quest for La Decima, all Work and no Clay makes Rafael Nadal a dull boy
Men's tennis is at a very critical juncture. Novak Djokovic has ushered in his era by winning 10 Grand Slams since 2011. While Roger Federer has won just one Grand Slam in the same period, Rafael Nadal clinched 5 Slams and Andy Murray emerged victorious at 2.
With Novak Djokovic crowning himself as the ‘Big One’ on account of his sheer domination over the other three, they say that the ‘Big Four’ is passe.
History suggests that most players decline in form from about the age of 28 or 29. Federer has won just two Slams after turning 28 and Nadal, a few days after his 28th birthday, has triumphed only once at Roland Garros.
Nadal’s fall from glory has been worrisome, to say the least.
Poor showing at the Grand Slams
Dented by diffidence and a below par movement on court, Nadal vowed to practice harder in the off-season of 2015. All the hard work that he put in seemed inadequate as he was worn down in the First Round of this year's Australian Open by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco.
Nadal was blown off the court by the flashy Dustin Brown in the Second Round at Wimbledon 2015 and was given a taste of his own medicine by the maverick Italian Fabio Fognini in the Fourth Round of the US Open 2015.
Ever since his 9th French Open title in 2014, Nadal had his best Slam results at last year's Australian Open and the French Open where he reached the Quarter Final stages. At Roland Garros, his bastion, Nadal was ousted in straight sets by Novak Djokovic.
Losing to players with a single-handed backhand
In his prime, Nadal relished bullying players with one handed backhands. Often targeting their backhands with his trademark sledgehammer forehand, Nadal would corner them into submission on numerous occasions and end up on the winning side.
The dynamics seem to have changed since his loss to his arch rival Roger Federer at Basel last year. This year, he has lost to the Austrian young gun Dominic Thiem at Buenos Aires and the journeyman from Uruguay Pablo Cuevas at Rio. Both these players employ a one-handed backhand.
What makes these losses even more bitter for the Spaniard is the fact that both of them were on clay. He lost to Thiem after failing to capitalize on a match point. For a player who is undoubtedly the greatest clay-court player of all-time, these losses to players and upstarts who are ranked outside the top 15 on his favorite surface is nothing less than appalling.
The killer Instinct needs to be rediscovered
Rafael Nadal is probably one of the toughest athletes, mentally, in the history of sports. He not only can be an amazing front runner but has also shown steely resolve in turning the match around while trailing.
The past two years have been a different story for the Spaniard. Hounded by injuries and plagued by confidence issues, the Mallorcan Matador lacks the killer instinct to close out matches.
Nadal has been losing matches in spite of being in commanding positions and has frittered away Match Points. Apart from his mental tenacity that is a huge component of his killer instinct, his fearsome forehand and agility on court made Nadal a force to reckon with. However, the forehand gives up on him quite frequently these days and he is half a step slower than what he was a couple of years back.
Failure to add variety to his game
Francis Roig, Rafael Nadal’s alternate Coach, in late 2015 claimed that Nadal can be back to being his former best should he improve his movement and foot speed. Legitimate as this comment may be, it is probably more important to assess its feasibility. For a 29-year-old player who has won a record 9 French Open titles and 46 clay-court titles, it is close to impossible to stay nimble footed his entire career.
Top players like Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic have long recognized the importance of keeping the points short by moving more frequently to the net.
After his recent loss to Pablo Cuevas at the Rio Open, Nadal acknowledged the need to play more offensive and create opportunities to move to the net. With the immense talent that this Spaniard possesses, making that change should not be a mammoth task.
The only ray of hope is Nadal’s undying zeal to keep working hard when the chips are down. Unfortunately, the King of Clay finds himself in the same woeful position like last year where he is struggling to win on his favorite surface. If he can make it only as far as the Semi-Finals in ATP 250 and ATP 500 events like in Buenos Aires and Rio, how will he fare in the ATP Masters events against top players?
With the challenges being multi-pronged, a number of young wolves in the fray and with the French Open just three months away, Rafael Nadal has to quickly set his house in order to regain his throne and claim the La Decima.