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Has Nadal’s career already peaked?

November 25, 2009

TENNIS-MEN/FINALSRafael Nadal has electrified men’s tennis since bursting on to the scene in 2005 but there are worrying signs that the Spaniard’s career may already have peaked.

With six grand slam titles to his name already Nadal has already staked his claim as one of the greats of the game but the aura he used to bring to the court has vanished.

In his first round-robin match at the ATP World Tour Finals in London on Monday he was bullied by Sweden’s Robin Soderling, spending virtually the whole match on the run.

It was a similar story on Wednesday against Nikolay Davydenko, with the Spaniard losing his second match in straight sets to leave himself with no chance of making progress.

The match against Soderling was instructive. His shots lacked depth and menace, and were food and drink to his opponent, who had time to set up hisbig forehand and pin Nadal in the corners of the court.

The serve is a worry too — he is managing very few easy points there — and then there is the matter of his knees. Only Nadal knows how much the tendonitis that prevented him from defending his Wimbledon title is still bothering him.

So much of Nadal’s mystique was built around his physical attributes, his speed and his court coverage. Getting the ball past his racket looked a near impossibility at times as Nadal often seemed twice as big as he actually is.

That intimidatory factor is not there now, however. His movements seems a little less explosive and players with the tools to attack the Spaniard are able to dominate rallies that used to be bread and butter for Nadal.

Better players than Soderling and even Davydenko used to walk on court against Nadal already beaten between the ears. For a while even Roger Federer, the greatest player to wield a racket, seemed to have run out of ideas against him.

Right now, however, Nadal looks vulnerable and he is without a title since May. In Beijing in October he was thrashed in the semi-finals by Marin Cilic and recently in Paris world number three Novak Djokovic proved far too strong.

For the sake of tennis, it has to be hoped that Nadal can recover his spark in time for the defence of his Australian title in January. The men’s game would be a poorer product without the swashbuckling Spaniard challenging for grand slam titles.

PHOTO: Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts during his ATP World Tour Finals tennis match against Nikolay Davydenko of Russia in London November 25, 2009. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Comments

I personally believe Nadal’s peaked was in 2008 when he reached won the FO and Wimbledon back-to-back, won the Olympic Gold, and dethroned Fed (temporarily) as World #1.

To achieve this feat (dethroning the greatest player to ever pick up a racket), he improved his game (especially his first-serve and backhand slice) and continued to put his body through a meat-grinding schedule. That coupled with his extremely physical style of tennis (running down every point in an almost super-human fashion) is a recipe for a relatively short career at the top of the men’s game.

Wilander did the same in 1987 when he changed coaches and refocused his career just to beat Lendl. This paid off in 1988 when he won 3 slams and dethroned Lendl in September after winning the US Open final (over Lendl) in a classic that lasted almost five hours. But that was Wilander’s last slam victory and he never regained his 1988 form. In contrast, Lendl, who had a more offensive, powerful, career-preserving style (he reached 2 Wimbledon finals), went on to regain his #1 ranking in January 1989 (when he won the Australian Open) and also won the Australian Open again in 1990. Lendl also made the US Open final in 1989 (losing to Becker) and the Australian Open final in 1991 (also losing to Becker).

The comparisons here are too obvious to ignore. Wilander, like Nadal, was a defensive grinder. Lendl always described him as being “hard to beat,” ilustrating his stubbornness and tenacity rather than his offensive skills. This style wins slams for a while but imposes a nasty toll on the body.

Also, notice that Wilander, like Nadal, was a maestro on clay-courts (Wilander won 3 French Open titles; Nadal has won 4). Their defensive, grinding style was perfectly suited for the red dirt. And until 1988 (corresponding to Nadal’s 2008), Wilander was fairly average on hards.

In contrast, Fed, unlike Nadal, plays a much more fluid, offensive style and is a much more complete player. Fed tries to win points quickly. This might not be perfect on the red dirt but OVERALL, is a much smarter (and longevity-friendly) way of playing the game. This, in addition to his genius and amazing athletic ability, is why Fed has had so few injuries in his career and has the insane streak of 22 straight Grand Slam semifinal appearances.

Nadal is arguably the toughest competitor to ever step on a tennis court. He will still compete hard and win more big events. He has also had personal and injury problems. But, like Wilander, his ultra-physical style is primarily to blame for his decline.

The human body simply cannot take the punishing Nadal endures with his “every point is a match point” style of tennis.

Lastly, Nadal started winning at 18, several years before his peers. His peers have now caught up (especially but not exclusively on hards). Notice how Djokovic plays his very tough on clay (even before Soderling beat him at Roland Garros).

And his looping top-spins are gravy for the big, strong, flat-hitting double-backhanded guys now at the top of the game (DelPo, Djokovic, Murray). He always had this match-up problem but now the elite players have caught up in almost every aspect (except maybe the big-match focus aspect). This is why he doesn’t intimidate the other top players like he once used to.

Posted by Danny | Report as abusive
 

What a shame for Rafa. I hope he gets better soon.
In which country other than UK is it praiseworthy to cheer for your countryman’s opponent?
Murray as British public to contend with who are so proud to be so bipartisan and support his opponents.
I hope DelPo’s winning streak against Federer continues .Why doesn’t he have a fansite-how can one wish him luck, offer to be his girlfriend etc. without one? He is so very sweet:)

 

What a shame for Rafa. I hope he gets better soon.
In which country other than UK is it praiseworthy to cheer for your countryman’s opponent?
Murray has the British public to contend with who are proud to be so bipartisan and support his opponents.
I hope DelPo’s winning streak against Federer continues .Why doesn’t he have a fansite-how can one wish him luck, offer to be his girlfriend etc. without one? He is so very sweet:)

 

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