How devastating the Spaniard’s fall from grace has been.
For tennis players, the decline can be especially turbulent. The end is almost never pretty. Players past their prime in this sport do not get to win another major title. They lure the crowd in before inevitably crumbling. In tennis, once you begin the descent, you do not usually get to climb back up top. But when a revolutionary and universally revered player like Rafael Nadal begins to crumble, one cannot help but become empathetic. He is not even 30 but now faces the likely realization that the French Open is the last chance for him to take a bite out of the trophy.
Nadal is currently riding a wave of momentum in Monte Carlo, but this does not change his dwindling prospects of winning beyond this next slam. He is the indisputable king of clay and has always performed well during this time. However, last year marked the first real sign of fragility on the surface he had made his for a decade. Djokovic, who will again be difficult at the French Open, steamrolled him off the court. He does not have the Serb to contend with in Monte Carlo, which can create a scenario of false hope for Nadal backers if he claims victory. No matter the result of this tournament, the Spaniard’s time is running out.
Every aspect of his game is regressing. He is no longer built for success at grand slams, which is evident in his lackluster displays in all of the other slams. Naturally, struggles in the French Open will come last, and if he could somehow sidestep Djokovic, he could have one last stand in May, but that is likely it.
The leave-it-all-on-the-court, power style of tennis that Nadal rode to the stratosphere has ironically accelerated his regression. His recent misstep at the Miami Open, which saw the once indestructible Spaniard retire in the decisive third set due to dizziness, shows just how much his game has changed in such a short amount of time. His problem lies in his inability to maintain his once trademark intensity for an entire match. He plays longer points against competition that he should be dispatching in considerably shorter time. He is still physically fit, but he lacks the explosive movement, as well as the deadly combination of power and speed that once carried him to the sport’s apex.
The result is a complete change in the pace of his matches. Average and even bottom-tier players are able to hang around until Nadal fully deteriorates. Longer matches simply do not benefit him, but that is the problem. It seems those are all the type of matches he plays now. It does not matter if he starts well because, as the match progresses, something will go wrong, and the tides will shift.
Blowing two-set leads, like the one he coughed up against Fabio Fognini at last year’s U.S. Open, would suggest a lack of composure or discipline, but Nadal is not an amateur. He is one of the most decorated players in the sport’s history. He would be able to close matches if he could physically will himself to points.
The Fognini match, for example, saw Nadal engage in several rallies, where he could not hit his patented cross court winners due to his speed and overall power being sapped throughout the match. He uses his whole body in every shot, probably more than any other player, and because his body is breaking down, players like Fognini are able to further exhaust Nadal with strenuous rallies. Bottom line, once the points become longer, Nadal struggles to end them and subsequently loses.
His power has diminished, as was evident in his marathon matches against Fognini and fellow countrymen/rival/friend Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne, both of whom he led at critical junctures. He leaves the door open to virtually every opponent he faces, making him the most unpredictable top-five player ever, which adds more heartbreak to his narrative.
Furthermore, when he does dominate, even then, it is not truly one-sided. He won the first set against Dzumhur Damir in Miami, 6-2, but it took him 45 minutes and 12 break points to achieve such a routine task. That is not a sign of a player primed to throw out the comeback card. Health cannot be used as an excuse because that will not change. The way he plays and practices, which is reportedly still rigorous, he will never again regain peak condition. This is now routine for him. Disheartening upsets have become the norm.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that Roger Federer, who no one would say is in decline, has not won a slam in over four years and was arguably playing some of his best tennis until recently. The world No. 3 would be an ideal player to compare to Nadal. He is almost five years older but has consistently played an elite brand of tennis throughout his career. It would, however, be unfair to juxtapose their 2016 seasons, as knee surgery had sidelined Federer for a bit.
The 2015 season, though, can provide relevant insight, as it was the first year Nadal had gone without a major, something he had been able to attain even after injuries. Nadal faced 425 break points on his serve, nearly 200 more than Federer, bringing us back to the issue of prolonged match play. He had had almost 700 break-point opportunities of his own, versus 585 for Federer, but their conversion percentages are nearly identical.
Nadal did play seven more matches, but the disparity between the two is large enough that, even if you account for extra games, he would still likely be working a lot harder and longer for similar results. Nadal also had advantages over Federer in break points faced and break-point opportunities in 2011 but had a conversion advantage of five percent.
Nadal can no longer sustain the longevity of the type of match he plays with the efficiency of another aging star. The two stars are on different trajectories despite a sizable gap in age. Nadal has been most inconsistent on the biggest stages, which requires more durability and consistency. Federer has those qualities in spades, but they are quickly depleting in Nadal.
The reason another major could be unattainable for both Federer and Nadal is Djokovic. His dominance exacerbates all of Nadal’s limitations. It is a combination of play that is not conducive to obtaining success in a two-week tournament, and he is a dominant foe who makes another comeback unlikely. Again, though, Nadal is a different person on clay. If he falters again, even against Djokovic, then the end will finally be clear.
Maybe it is overly dramatic to place Nadal on his tennis deathbed, but make no mistake; his prospects of success are fleeing fast as he nears that foreboding number 30. The premature end of a transcendent player who surely owns a place on the Tennis Mount Rushmore is a cruel ending. This athlete deserves one more defining moment. Tennis, however, is not sympathetic to a feel-good story. His recent matches indicate what already looks to be the end of an era, but Nadal is an unconventional player, and he will need an unconventional run to capture glory one more time.
All stats courtesy of ATP World Tour.com
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