Rafael Nadal’s abrupt implosion and fall into oblivion is a testament to the fact that nothing can be taken for granted in tennis.
At times may be we are too harsh in dishing out our verdicts on champions going through a lean patch of form. The bigger they are, more severe and swift are the judgments from the critics and pundits.
Since one is used to their continual winning habit, a set of defeats becomes too difficult to discern, and a deviation from the status quo ultimately yields newer assessments. Once a champion of high stature starts finding it difficult to win, the assessments that will follow are usually laced with opinions of disparaging, extravagant and exaggerated nature.
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And recently, there is no bigger player who has found it difficult to win than Rafael Nadal, a 14-times grand slam champion. After more than a decade, it happened for the first that Nadal failed to capture a Major title in a calendar year.
His nosedive into obscurity has been as such that now it has stripped him of the status of being the challenger to Roger Federer’s record grand slam haul of 17. The mace, now, it appears has transferred to Novak Djokovic who is currently experiencing a fairytale season.
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But what are the reasons that can be attributed to Nadal’s plummeting form? And more importantly, can the 29-year-old rally from his crumbling fortunes and reverse the contemporary paradigm to reinstall himself amongst the game’s bigwigs?
The most astonishing aspect of Nadal’s decline is that it could primarily be owed to his lack of confidence: something that is difficult to stomach given how his psychological prowess has been the major factor contributing to his rivals’ undoing over the years. And it seems it is a reality not gone amiss with the Spaniard himself.
Losses to less decorated opponents have consequently resulted in Nadal losing his air of invincibility and psychological edge over them. A set of such defeats in the earlier part of the year set the precedent for the other players who started coming out all-guns-blazing and with a spark in their eyes clearly communicating a ‘we can do it too’ message.
Nadal’s plight, then, has not been helped by the fact that the most potent tool in his armory has now degraded: his once booming and zipping forehand. A shot which once struck fear into his opponents’ hearts and kept them pinned to the baseline and allowed him to play on his terms, it now is often too short, wayward and lost the sting about it.
It almost imploded against Andy Murray in the Madrid Open final with some of his forehand swings in that contest testing not the opponent on the other side of net but those in the crowds attempting to catch the ball.
No Plan B
Another conspicuous issue with Nadal’s game is that he does not possess a Plan B. Though his one-dimensional slant has yielded him sizeable successes over the years, it has now been completely undone. The primary reason for it might be in his inability to execute it correctly, but the point remains that it is not getting the job done for him.
It is high time Nadal took a leaf out of Federer’s book and did a bit of tinkering with his strategy and tactics especially when up against the big boys. Perhaps shifting the fundamental framework of his game from an almost always deployed defense-centered baseline game to an adopting a more offensive posture will ultimately start to produce results of his liking.
As for his confidence issues, I believe it won’t take long before he rediscovers it. All he requires is one good run and his appetite for winning will return again. As a famous saying goes, ‘winning is a habit’. And we are very well aware of the extent of successes and accomplishments that emerge out of Nadal’s winning habit.
The way I see it, the start of the next year will be crucial for Nadal, and even more so will be the European clay swing. Nadal is renowned for his struggles at the closing end of the season so don’t expect him to create any ripples in the coming months. It is mainly the first half of the season which proves to be the connoisseur in deciding at what place a player will finish the season.
To ensure he finishes off the year with an aim of working out a winning formula and come back again next year with all the essentials.
Don’t rule him out as yet. Nadal is a fighter and will do his utmost to regain his lost stature. And his return to form will be a welcome sign for it will not only herald the return of one of the game’s greatest ever but also keep in check the ascent of Djokovic and the current askew balance of power in tennis.