Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi once said "Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing." Lombardi's words have never rang so true to Rafael Nadal as they do now.
Last Friday, Nadal lost in a five-set epic thriller to Fabio Fognini after taking a comfortable two set opening lead.
The outcome of Friday night's third round match at the US Open is one that many could not have foreseen after Nadal took the first two sets and its significance cannot be overlooked in terms of its relevance to Nadal's prospects of winning another Grand Slam before the end of his glittering career.
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The significance of Fognini's triumph over Nadal can be summed up by three damning statistics; 1) Prior to his third round exit at Flushing Meadows, Nadal had a 151-game unbeaten streak in matches where he had begun with a two set lead.
2) Nadal's latest defeat was his fourth consecutive exit before a semi-final at a Grand Slam this year and, most significantly of all, Nadal's loss at this year's US Open marked the first time in 10 years that the Spaniard has not won a Grand Slam title in his illustrious career.
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The third statistic is one which Nadal and his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, will have to reflect on. On one hand, the fact that their partnership has garnered a Grand Slam title every year since 2004 and that for the last 15 years that Toni Nadal has been his Coach, Rafa has won an impressive 14 Grand Slam titles is truly remarkable.
However, even more startling was Nadal's reaction to the end of his phenomenal 10-year Grand Slam winning streak, saying "the only thing this means is I played worse than the last 10 years. That's the real thing. By the way, for me it was amazing to win 10 years in a row a Grand Slam."
Nadal's words are not those of a future great Champion but of a player who has given up on the aspiration of being one. The reason Nadal and his camp will give for his ailing form are Nadal's unrelenting chronic injuries, which have resulted in him not getting enough of the right kind of match practice but one has only to look at the season before his last US Open title in 2013 to understand that this is not the case.
In 2013, Nadal suffered an unexpected loss in his first round match at Wimbledon against world number 135 Steve Darcis. Nadal's loss to Darcis came as a shock because he had just secured his eighth French Open title a few weeks earlier. A few months later, he would win his second US Open title and reclaim the world number one ranking.
Nadal's second US Open title came against an in form Novak Djokovic in a final in which he exhibited the greatest trait of a Champion: winning muscle memory, a trait which was noticeably absent during his defeat Fabio Fognini's hands.
Even at last year's Wimbledon, in crashing out to a teenage Nick Kyrgios, he did so having won his 14th Grand Slam in Paris in the same month. Fast forward to 2015 and the only notable positive that can be taken from Nadal's unsuccessful year is that he still appears to have the same level of passion for the game and to improve.
However, his passion is not enough to return him to his rightful place at the upper echelons of the game. Drastic change and the desire and will to enact such change is the key to Nadal's renaissance.
Change of Coach
So what does drastic change look like for Nadal? It involves doing the one thing he has long vowed not to do, part with his coach, Uncle Toni.
Like his peers Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, Nadal needs to wake up to the reality that in order to rekindle his championship winning days he requires a new coach who can reinvigorate his winning habit. Serena Williams made the difficult switch from being coached by her father a few years ago and has never looked back.
So as Williams looks to claim her first calendar Grand Slam, Nadal would do well to follow in her footsteps off the court so he can do the same on it.
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