Shane Warne is one of the all-time cricketing greats. A man more admired for his bowling ability than almost any other person in history. And while there was often reason to bemoan his off-field antics, everyone marvelled at his on-field prowess. He was interviewed on the way into the Royal Boxes at Wimbledon in 2014. He was there to watch Nadal play (a match he would later lose to Nick Kyrgios). The interviewer asked Shane about his thoughts on Nadal. And while I haven’t got the words verbatim, he said words to the effect that all sportsmen, not just tennis players, respect Nadal’s aura as a fighter. As someone who won’t go down. As if playing him is a harrowing experience to be endured. In 2013, many top ATP players listed Nadal as their toughest opponent (1). There is no doubt, Nadal was a truly feared opponent. Was.
But 2015 was not kind to Rafa. Last year he didn’t reach a single Grand Slam semi-final. From at least winning one every year, to not even getting to the last weekend of a championship is a dramatic decline. Prior to the US Open in 2015, Nadal was 151-0 in Grand Slam matches where he led two sets to none. One hundred and fifty-one times he had won from that position. This staggering statistic was blemished when Nadal lost to Fabio Fognini, the mercurial Italian Stallion, in the third round. Fognini is talented for sure, but I can’t help but think that this loss was an indicator of things to come.
This year has not seen an improved picture. Most recently he lost in the first round of the Australian Open to a fellow Spanish left-hander, Fernando Verdasco. A revenge match for the 2009 semi-final tussle (2). Both these matches exemplify the form of Nadal at their respective times. In 2009, the match was an epic filled with outlandish forehands and absurd angles. A man playing out of his skin against a resolute and overawing Nadal. Last week, Nadal didn’t have the strength, confidence or ability to respond in the same way. Dare I say it, he looked vulnerable. Let’s not undermine the boldness of Verdasco’s shot-making, but previously that wasn’t enough. But as Steve Darcis, Dustin Brown and now Verdasco show, maybe it is enough now.
Nadal has burned so brightly over the past decade that his sudden collapse in form seems, to me, quite predictable. His intensity and physicality were always going to exact a deep toll. He was never going to be playing for as long as someone like Roger Federer who glides around the court. Nadal’s extreme foot-speed, unparalleled topspin and whipping racquet head speed combine to create the most physically demanding style I’ve witnessed on the tour. Playing like he has for over a decade, it almost seems miraculously he didn’t dip in form earlier. Sure he has had a number of timeouts to work on injuries, but he always returned with venom and titles.
As a Roger Federer fan, it is both gratifying and sad to see the beginning of the end for Nadal. Sad as Nadal has been a constant in the Big Four and I only have respect for his accomplishments and unyielding attitude. Plus his Mallorcan accent is a great addition to the pressers at the Slams. Gratifying as Federer is proving a more sustained kind of brilliance. It reminds me of the trope in popular culture, where the hero might lose to an opponent who drains... something worded like “life-force” in order to boost their "power-level". A costly sacrifice is required in order to defeat the hero. This, of course, is a slightly silly comparison, but it’s something that keeps popping into my head. Sure, Nadal had Federer’s number…but maybe that’s because he made some Faustian bargain and the trade-off is longevity.
Without a doubt the most interesting Grand Slam this year will be the French Open. It’s the place best suited for Nadal to make a last stand. And it’s the tournament that Novak Djokovic most desires. He will be single-minded in his pursuit and if 2015 is anything to go by, only a truly inspired, almost other-worldly performance will deny him. Let’s see if Nadal can turn back the clock, because that’s largely the kind of level he has played in Paris for the past decade.
1) Link. See the very start and end of video for direct quotes.
2) Link. Definitely worth watching.