Rafael Nadal and his woes against the other 'Big 2'
Following a disastrous 2015 and 2016 season and especially after suffering an ignominious defeat at the hands of Lucas Pouille in the 5th set tie-break of their Round of 16 match at the US Open 2016, Rafael Nadal looked a shadow of his previous self, plagued by injuries and unsure about his game and future.
The inclusion of fellow Spaniard and his old friend Carlos Moya into his coaching team in December 2016 paid immediate dividends as Nadal managed to reach the final of the Australian Open in 2017. The influence of Moya in Nadal's resurgence since 2017 has been monumental, and without any doubt has transformed him into an even better player, adding to his arsenal a few tricks and strategies which have proven to be extremely fruitful.
The results speak for themselves - Nadal has managed to win 3 Grand Slams in the last two years, along with 8 other titles.
However, there has been a blip in his performances against the other ‘Big 2’ which cannot be ignored. While he has been ruthless against all of his other opponents, Nadal has severely struggled against his two biggest rivals, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
Federer and Nadal met each other four times in 2017, only for Nadal to succumb against his arch-rival on all four occasions. What’s more worrying, especially if you are a Nadal fan, is that 3 of those 4 losses were in straight sets; Nadal was humbled by the Swiss in 2017, and simply had no answers to Federer’s brilliance.
Since 2017, Nadal has competed against Djokovic 4 times too. Though he managed to win on his beloved clay against the Serb at the Madrid Masters in 2017 and at the Rome Masters in 2018, Djokovic had the last laugh not only at last year’s Wimbledon but also at this year’s Australian Open.
Such has been the dominance of Djokovic that Nadal didn't get a single break of serve against the Serb at the Rod Laver Arena in the final of Australian Open 2019. Nadal’s performance in that match appeared to be toothless and spineless to say the least, and he gave the impression of being completely bamboozled by Djokovic’ s aggression.
In light of these demoralizing losses, you have to wonder what goes wrong for Nadal when he sees either Federer or Djokovic on the other side of the net. Has he developed a sort of mental block against either Federer or Djokovic?
It’s an interesting debate, because to be honest, there are very few in the tennis circuit today except Federer and Djokovic who can match Nadal’s intensity over a sustained period of time. So when Nadal comes across such greats themselves, does he get preoccupied with self-doubt and worry, forcing him to make errors which otherwise he wouldn’t?
From another perspective, with Nadal now being on the wrong side of 30 and given the fact that his body is more injury-prone than ever before, accompanied by his game which is so physical, he might simply be unable to match the physical demands of the competition that once he met easily.
Who knows, since he met those physical demands so easily in the past, he might have won even those matches which he wasn’t supposed to. But with advancing age, he doesn’t have that cushion anymore - and he must be well-aware of this fact himself.
Nadal will probably clash against Federer this Saturday in the Indian Wells semifinal, and he has a chance to avenge some of his losses that he suffered at the hands of Swiss maestro in 2017. The potential match up between the two great rivals at Indian Wells can set the tone for the rest of the season, as both of them look to regain some lost consistency.