“I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down”, this Chubawamba number seemed to be an apt description so far for Rafael Nadal and his fights against injuries.
But losing to Fabio Fognini at the US Open and exiting early at yet another Slam this year, has forced one question , has the champion entered a downward spiral or is it just that he needs some more time to find his mojo again after a major injury?
At his peak, he was undoubtedly an unconquerable machine, one who could douse the brilliance of a Federer , subdue the will of Djokovic and decimate all other wannabes without giving them a whiff of a chance.
His strokes aren’t off by much , physically too he seems to be moving well but as he himself admitted at the beginning of the year , he seems to be held behind ,ever so slightly, by self doubt. And in the competitive universe that is men’s tennis, the difference between 90% and 100% , even just in the mind, can be a gulf to hard to bridge. When the mind doubts, the body reacts with a safety first approach.
What should be a rasping, whirring, collecting chalk on it’s way, top spin forehand down the line winner, is instead just a middle of the court , “keep it in play” , “wait for the next opportunity” kind of harmless stroke. The effect is two fold, not only is Nadal’s game less effective but players who would earlier just roll over, now start to believe that they can win. The prospect of getting such a big scalp propels them to greater heights, if only for one match. Most of his recent conquerors are journeymen who have never quite been able to replicate it against others.
Just 2 years back , he had made the most miraculous of recoveries from injury to win the US Open title and it looked like Federer’s record of 17 Slams was there for the taking. Yet that hasn’t happened. Apart from winning a French Open last year on his favourite clay, the Slams have eluded him. This year he managed to lose in Paris too.
The recurring injuries haven’t helped nor has the incredible level of play that Djokovic has reached this year. Yet Nadal, has previously overcome the peskiness of both these factors and re-established himself as the King.
But it doesn’t feel right this time around.So what has changed.When Nadal bowed out of the US Open, it was for the first time after ten years that he had not won a Grand Slam title in a calendar year. This is monumental, because over the years despite injuries, he always was able to win at the highest level.
Presumably, Nadal is facing the inevitable loss of momentum a professional athlete goes through when he takes the foot of the pedal or when he is forced to take the foot of the pedal through injury, as in Nadal’s case. Earlier in his career, when he was younger probably it was easier to come back but after a decade at the top maybe it has become more difficult and the effort of recovery has made him more circumspect. Nadal’s physical nature of play – chasing down shots that seemed unrecoverable & hitting muscular winners when out of position – definitely took it’s toll on his knees. Eleven years of running down balls & bullying the best into submission,in a career regularly punctuated by injuries, is bound to have an impact, a welcome one for his peers but an agonising one for Nadal. One can only surmise that the injury knocked him of his perch and jolted his confidence, which in turn has impacted his thought process and ultimately affected performance. It is strange to see a player with the power of mind to boss over most opponents , now showing signs of weakness and fumbling in his decisiveness.
But we must remember that Federer, Djokovic,Murray all have been here before. The space where one needs the belief to win. Novak & Andy had it early in careers,when in the shadow of the Fedex and Rafa they were left wondering whether they would win even one Slam. Both got that belief subsequently and went on to win multiple Slams. Roger , after 2008-9 really was never the player he was before and the word on the circuit was that he had become more “beatable”. But he did win Wimbledon in 2012 and has been consistent over the past year rising to No. 2 in the rankings.
Tiger Woods, Sachin Tendulkar, Messi and numerous other athletes have reached this turn in their careers due to different reasons and tided over them with varying degrees of success.
Its just that we are bemused by seeing the seemingly unshakeable & strong Nadal for the first time in this shaky space and that too for an elongated stretch of time. Nadal’s shotmaking has not deserted him but he needs to find his two greatest weapons again, mental toughness and great athleticism. Whether he can find those only time will tell.
Of course, with his track record it is not at all improbable that Rafa will be back to his winning ways, and many feel that its only a question of when and not if. One just hopes that he gets back to his roaring best pretty soon and that tennis lovers will be able to enjoy the relentless energy that is Rafa, for many more years to come!