Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rafael Nadal: The Exterior is the Same, but the Inside...

This has been a trying year for all fans of Rafael Nadal. For a player of his calibre and stature, he has made some really head-scratching mistakes in matches I have watched him play. He has won some, but the tale of the tape is that unheralded players have beaten him this year, sometimes twice! What has changed? Alas, no one knows but Rafa himself. As an avid fan, let me take a stab at what might be going on.

1. The Mind Wants One Thing, the Body Cannot Respond
In years past, Rafa's tenacity and strident resolve made it impossible for players to beat him. He imposed his will on his opponents, tearing them down one brick at a time. His body cooperated, née collaborated, with his mind in these endeavors. The case today is he looks tired by the third set, especially in close encounters. The very foundation of his game is his physicality, and once that wanes, other fallacies come into sharp focus.

2. Whence the Body Wilts, the Mind Wanders
Sensing a drop in his physicality, Rafa starts making uncharacteristic mistakes. He rushes shots, tries to finish points, and loses some explosiveness off the court. The inevitable mistakes ensure that doubt creeps in. 

3. His Top Gear cannot Engage
Rafa seems to have lost his ability to switch to a higher gear when he is ahead. The first sign of a champion is their ability to press home an advantage. Rafa has lost a number of matches this year after winning the first set. This said, the true sign of a great champion is their ability to find this gear when their backs are against the wall. Take what both Novak and Andy did today in their respective matches. Andy was on the brink in sets 2 and 3, but he pulled off a win against Grigor. Rafa is unable to get himself out of a jam these days. He cannot break back but his serve is broken easily after he has secured a break. Speaking of his serve...

4. Failing Mechanics - The Vulnerable Serve 
Oh the serve. Where should I begin? I noticed s a new kink this week - he is standing with his front foot almost perpendicular to the baseline. This prevents his body from rotating during the wind-up, which gives more power and control to the delivery. For the model serve in today's game, look no further than Federer. Dare I say, even Novak! And the backhand, how many times can he run around it? 

5. Stop - What if This Is All We Could Have Gotten!
Right from the day I started following Rafa, I have heard the peanut gallery say:
- his game and style of play are not sustainable
- his extreme grip changes are flawed and let him down in the return game
- his coaching team will be his undoing
- and so on...
Over the last two weeks, I witnessed something completely outside of all these observations. I witnessed a mashup of all these issues that have exposed a Franken-defect in his game. He is getting outhit in baseline rallies. It is clear to me that opponents are out-thinking him because they are coming into matches with a coherent strategy to upend his rhythm, counter his playing style. They have realized that once his rhythm is impacted, the wheels come off!

We are at the cusp of a new era in men's tennis: the era of "first strike tennis". Guys like Nishikori, Kyrgios and their peers are swinging for the fences from the first ball. Forget about constructing a point; they are going for it from the get go. Dare I say, Wawrinka is the only one among the previous generation who plays like that. It's swashbuckling and highly entertaining, but it also means that my hero had best adjust or retire. I cannot foresee a third option; Rafa has too much class to be relegated to the bottom of the barrel before recognizing that his time is up. 

A part of me wishes that he adjusts. The realist in me knows that is easier said than done. Show me a sign Rafa; give me a reason to hope...

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