The Miami Masters of 2004 marked the beginning of the rise of Rafael Nadal, then 17 years old, into tennis stardom, handing Roger Federer only his second loss of the season.
At the time, not many people would have realised that they were witnessing the first match of arguably the most famous and anticipated rivalries in the history of the game. Fast-forward 10 years, we find Federer (34) still moving around the court as he did a decade earlier. Others like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have made the centre stage their own.
On the other hand, Nadal (29) is nowhere near the top, where he used to be. The high standards he set for himself have proved to be very difficult to reach, even for a warrior like him. Nadal is only one year older than Djokovic, but the Serbian looks so far ahead of his rival. The gulf has never been so wide.
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Federer is four years older, yet Nadal appears to be flaming out faster than the evergreen Swiss maestro, whose elegance and smoother style is less demanding on the body, and mind, than Nadal’s fierce approach.
Over the past 10 years, almost each of Nadal’s matches went on for more than four and a half hours. Each was desperate, operatic, repeatedly to-the-brink-and-back; each ended with Nadal collapsing on the court in triumph and the spectators exhausted and perspiring.
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Having come out on top in an epic three hour fifty-four minute showdown (the longest 3-set match since 1993) against Carlos Moya in the Chennai Open 2008 semi-final, a visibly tired and worn-out Nadal was beaten comprehensively by Mikhail Youzhny. Such is Rafa’s style of tennis. Unlike Federer who is elegant and fluid and cerebral, so that his best tennis looks effortless even when he is making shots that ought to be physically impossible; Nadal is muscled-up and explosive and relentless, so that his best tennis looks not like a gift from heaven but instead like the product of ferocious will.
The tally of Nadal’s ailments over the years includes a stress fracture in his left foot, a banged-up elbow from a fall outside a tennis court, random knee and joint pains, the tendinitis, each ailment worse than the last. Each time, Nadal came back stronger than before.
The 14-time grand slam winner’s fall from the top has been rather quick. A near perfect road to last year’s Australian Open Final was put to waste by a bothersome back injury. The winner, Stanislas Wawrinka, had never gained a set off Nadal in their 11 previous meetings. Yet, the champion that is Nadal came back strong to win his 5th straight Roland Garros crown; leading his fans to believe that he was truly back.
Alas, it proved to be a false alarm. Nadal withdrew from the US Open that year and then went on to lose the quarterfinal at the Australian Open this year to Tomas Berdych. At Wimbledon, for the fourth time in as many years, he was beaten by a player ranked over 100. As a result, he is now ranked at a paltry number 9 in the world of tennis. His victories in Buenos Aires, Stuttgart and Hamburg have given something for his fans to cheer on, but the player himself remains a shadow of what he used to be.
One of the only four players to have achieved a career golden slam (alongside Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Serena Williams), Nadal also remains part of two of the most storied tennis rivalries in the Open Era.
As of now, Rafa leads in both rivalries. Rafavic, a rivalry which was for the larger part of its history in Rafa’s court; has tipped over to Djokovic’s over the past couple of years. The rivalry has seen dominance shift back and forth, with Nadal dominant early on, followed by Djokovic beating Nadal seven times in a row, then Nadal winning six out of seven, and Djokovic winning four straight matches prior to Nadal's win in the 2014 French Open final.
Give another 4-5 matches, and Djokovic will be in total control over the rivalry. Nadal’s performances against top-10 ranked opponents (excluding Djokovic) have not been alarmingly bad. It is only against lower ranked, younger opponents that he has struggled over the past couple of years.
Rafa is definitely not going to last as long as Federer has. To many, it won’t be surprising if Nadal calls it quits before Roger does. A change of strategy and technique may be what Nadal really needs.
Changes in his support staff, a new coach and a new training menu may prove to be decisive for him in the years to come. Nadal is not a bad doubles player either! He has won nine titles as a doubles player with a best ranking of 26 in August 2008. Doubles may be a way forward for him.
As a hardcore Rafa fan, I still believe that he has enough gas in his tank to pull off another stunning comeback from his miseries. For Nadal, there will be longer droughts between slams as he ages - remember Federer has only won one major in the past five years - but the landscape in men’s tennis isn’t so daunting.
Djokovic is clearly the best player but he won’t win every slam. Murray is an excellent player but he has not been a consistent performer in majors. Wawrinka is dangerous but unpredictable. Time is running out for the champion pretty rapidly and he better conjure up something remarkable before his steam runs out!
But as things stand, Rafa is nowhere near near the levels of the Big 3- Murray, Federer and Djokovic.