Rafa Nadal 2015 is not the Nadal we know.
Everyone saw it coming, especially after the way he pushed his body to the limits for almost a decade. He was always the kind of tennis player who had made peace with the fact that he’d have a short tennis-life, but a blazing one at that. The cost? His body. Fair enough. On the other hand, Federer has a game that causes his body minimal stress and damage, and his intention to enjoy a long career lurking around the top 5 is probable, and is happening as we speak. He will play longer, but perhaps not win as much as he wants.
When Nadal hit the scene running in 2005 as a teenager, his physical style captured the world’s imagination. How could a body possibly withstand this kind of punishment? And for how long?
We got our answers over the years. It isn’t the first time Nadal has missed more than half the ATP season, and probably isn’t the last. Maybe he shouldn’t be making comebacks, but his age (29 this June) won’t allow him to go into the darkness without a fight. He is probably convinced that he must play at least a few years more, which is why he has agreed to tone down this game to survive long enough. But is he surviving?
He is competitive, but his ‘bad year’ is as good as anyone else’s very successful year. Make no mistake though—Rafael Nadal, on 14 Grand Slams, won’t win more than 1 more. He has made miraculous comebacks every year just in time to win the French Open, just in time to tune to his favorite playing surface, but 2015 has been different.
2015 has been the beginning of the end—an end that had begun in 2008.
That he has managed to win a number of titles since 2008 is, in itself, quite an achievement. But the most resounding reminder of his body giving up on him is, ironically, his performance on clay. Nadal wasn’t expected to compete on the harder surfaces, and he didn’t, but it’s difficult not to be wary when you see his bullish figure across the net on red clay.
But Nadal has now lost titles at Barcelona, Monte Carlo and Madrid. These were his pet tournaments for many years. It isn’t so much losing as the way he exited—to players he owned for years. It isn’t bad to lose to Novak Djokovic (Monte Carlo), but losing to Andy Murray, no matter how rejuvenated the Brit is (who had never won a clay court title all career before 2015), is possibly the last straw.
Murray destroyed Nadal on the clay of Madrid.
Nadal slammed forehands into the net, under the net and into the sides. He mishit most of his backhands, and looked like the shadow of the player who would have once won the match before it even started. He reached the final by beating some good players, but his ‘bad days’ are happening way more often on a surface the law of probability and averages never applied to him on.
He is now playing in the Rome Masters, the final event before Roland Garros—where he is 9-time Champion. You heard that right—9 times, he has won the Major. He has lost only one match in 10 years on this surface, in 2009, against Robin Soderling—the only time a non-Nadal (Federer) won the French Open. But this time, there’s Novak Djokovic. There’s also Andy Murray.
And more than anything, Nadal’s greatest opponent will be Rafael Nadal.
It has come a full circle. Will the King be dethroned in his own court?