Rafael Nadal: Where to Now?
For the fourth consecutive year, Rafael Nadal lost to a player ranked outside the Top 100 at Wimbledon. For the fourth consecutive year, Nadal failed to reach the quarterfinals.
Of those losses, Thursday’s to Dustin Brown was by far the least surprising. The Spaniard had entered Wimbledon coming off his weakest clay court season in recent memory and was facing a high-octane opponent who had taken him apart in Halle last year.
What Brown did was tremendous; his performance should neither go unrecognized nor be diminished by Nadal’s recent vein of lackluster form. The numbers from the match paint a picture of a past champion being beaten by a superior opponent rather than a lower ranked player benefiting from his opponent’s inconsistencies.
Brown hit 58 winners to 24 unforced errors, a +34 margin. Nadal hit 42 winners to just 15 unforced errors, a +27 margin. It’s important to keep in mind that Wimbledon is rather conservative when it comes to dishing out unforced errors, but regardless of how you feel about the count, Brown still hit 58 winners. He took the ball early, stormed the net to perfection and provided the former No. 1 with absolutely no rhythm.
Could Nadal have made adjustments to throw Brown off his game? Yes.
Was Brown handed the win? Absolutely not.
What can be concluded, however, plays into a familiar theme we’ve seen through most of these head-scratching losses: Rafael Nadal is not the player he once was. That is not a secret — almost everyone knows it — but few can provide concrete evidence as to why. In his last two major losses, Novak Djokovic and Dustin Brown brought their A-games, but their tasks were made decidedly simpler with an inferior Nadal on the other side of the net.
Were Nadal still at his peak, two things would automatically be different. For one, he wouldn’t have been missing routine shots. More importantly, Nadal’s opponents would so easily inject themselves into a match, controlling the Spaniard with their desired game plans. Brown is a tough one to rattle if he’s firing on all cylinders, but I don’t believe Nadal lets Djokovic or someone like a Fernando Verdasco (who beat Nadal in Miami) dictate, say, two summers ago.
For many, the situation boils down to one thing: confidence. Nadal has admitted to lacking confidence on the court, causing doubt to creep into many of his 2015 matches. That’s all well and good, but for me, doubt is not the disease but a symptom of a larger problem. We still haven’t unearthed what is happening to cause the misses that have led to a loss of confidence.
Coming off an injury from the end of last season meant Nadal would naturally start out rusty, but he admitted in Doha and later in Melbourne that he was feeling fine, physically. At some point in the Spaniard’s several injury comebacks, the rust wears off and he returns to excellence. There has to be something else that is causing Nadal to not only miss routine but also lack the ability to dictate rallies, which in turn causes him to lose confidence.
This is not a chicken and the egg question. Nadal misses shots then loses confidence, not the other way around.
The first plausible explanation to what we are seeing is that age has caught up to Nadal — quicker than anyone could have foreseen. Nadal is one of the most physical tennis player tennis has ever seen. He asks a lot of his body and, like any athlete who deals with blow after blow, his wheels are slowing down, preventing him from playing top tennis. Nadal is only 29, hardly ancient by modern tennis standards, but has undoubtedly worn his body down far more than a typical 29-year-old.
I’m skeptical of this explanation is because we’ve seen flashes of the old from Nadal this year. There have been times where we have begun to believe that the run of poor form has ended and that he’s ready to contend for the biggest titles again. With convincing clay court wins over players like John Isner and Tomas Berdych, the promise of a resurgence seemed potentially imminent. His win in Stuggart led others to claim Nadal was once again ready to make a run at a major.
This leads me to the next explanation. We may be witnessing an older player who simply needs more time, matches, and mileage to reestablish himself. The will to win has always taken Nadal far, but at his age, the tennis side of the equation may need more breaking in. It may seem like a very long time, but the Spaniard may still be in the process of forging his road back to success.
It’s impossible to say for certain. After all, this theory asserts that Nadal doesn’t need to make any major changes, that progress will be made simply with a little patience.
Comparing Nadal’s 2015 to Roger Federer’s disappointing 2013 season, Nadal already has 34 wins — compare that to Federer’s season total of 45. That year, Federer only won one title (Halle). Already at the halfway mark of the 2015 season, Nadal has doubled that number. These are obviously two different players — with arguably different issues — but the point remains that it will always be tough to count a member of the Big 4 out, at least until they hang up their rackets for good.
A final explanation dictates that it’s more than a matter of just being more consistent; Nadal needs to fix something, tactically or technically. To me, this is the most viable explanation.
Someone would need to sit down and analyze Nadal’s games, sets, and matches to diagnose what might be hindering his game. Mid-to-late career renaissances sound impossible, but they’ve happened before. Marin Cilic restructured his serve and mindset after years of being on tour and ended up winning the US Open. Nadal may not actually have something that needs to be fixed, but he would be remiss not to check.
My belief that there is something wrong with Nadal’s game — something fixable, but as yet undetermined. One thing that’s abundantly clear is a pattern of shots consistently missed out wide. An immediate solution would be to be maintain the same level aggression, but aim to bigger targets on the court as opposed to closer to the lines. Greater margin would lead to more rhythm, and with that momentum at his back, the confidence could return sooner rather than later.
We are talking about one of the greatest players ever. This can’t be the end and I don’t think it is.
Where do you think Nadal goes from here? Sound off in the comments!
He might just retire at the end of the year 😦
I think Explanation #1 is the most likely, perhaps in combination with other issues. Don’t forget that besides our muscles and tissues and bones, our brains also age. Rafa’s success has been dependent on emotional intensity as well as physical. Recovering from injury after injury takes it’s toll on the brain too.
Brain research has shown that neural pathways degenerate when used over and over, but we are capable of forging new connections throughout our lifetimes. As we age, we produce less adrenaline and more of other hormones.
Maybe it’s as simple as making a major life shift: marriage, for example. Or a new coach, a new routine.
Solid analysis Nick. We all know what Rafa is capable of and he never gives up.