RAFAEL NADAL AND HIS SEASON OF TURMOIL Shyam Sundar August 25, 2015 Pro THE STRUGGLES The summer of Rafael Nadal’s discontent continued Thursday night when he dropped his fourth hard-court match in eight tries, after a three-set loss, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (3) loss to countryman Feliciano Lopez. Nadal has now gone through the most disappointing clay-court season of his career, is 13-9 in his last 22 hard-court matches and is currently getting the sixth-best odds to win the U.S. Open, behind the rest of the Big Four (a group he’s in danger of getting booted from), Stan Wawrinka and an injured Kei Nishikori. All this from a man who was ranked No. 1 as recently as 13 months ago. Rafa Nadal’s current woes have been well publicised. From his regular early losses to his failure to add to his legendary Roland Garros haul, it seems that the 29-year-old is tangled in a thick web of troubles. When decent analysis is made of the case, Nadal’s struggles actually haven’t been as fatal as suggested. Many forget that the Spaniard suffered an injury-strewn 2014 season, from which his form has yet to resurrect. Andy Murray, the current world no. 2, endured similar last season, when he took a full year to recover from minor back surgery. Only since January has he truly returned to his winning ways. Recently victimised by physical issues – not to mention appendicitis – Rafa has also come up against quality opposition early on in competition multiple times. Combined with the Murray story, this hints that the tennis legend deserves more time before his place in the game is doubted. Words from the man himself have stressed the need for patience. After his premature Wimbledon defeat to an inspired Dustin Brown, he shared: “I don’t know if I will be back to the level of 2008 or 2010. My motivation is to try to be back to that level. But I’ve got to keep working. It’s not the end. My career [continues].” Since then, the world no. 8 has reiterated the sentiment many times over. That no, retirement is not on his mind. That this is motivation, there are positives, and things will improve. And there are still winning streaks to uphold. As things stand, Rafael Nadal is the only player to have won at least one Masters 1000 and one Grand Slam title every year since 2005. And with his three titles of 2015 all below that prestigious level, these next few months could be critical for his future. Despite his never-say-die attitude, Rafa has picked up two more losses these last two weeks, both at Masters series events. The first came in the Rogers Cup quarters to world no. 4 Kei Nishikori. And the second came just last night in Cincinnati, to compatriot Feliciano Lopez. What does this say about Rafa’s current form? And what does it indicate for his US Open campaign? That will largely come down to the man himself. THE LATEST LOSSES No top player can hide behind the ‘my opponent was just too good’ excuse forever. If that’s always the case, you might as well hang up your racquet – or else say hello to a consistent top 30 ranking. But to say Rafa’s last two victors were simply playing well would be an understatement. Kei Nishikori – the young Japanese prone to incessant injury – was quick, sharp and lethal in Canada. Serve on point, he took Rafa’s shots at the height of the bounce in order to crack down and dominate. When he had the advantage he rarely let it slip, and combined endurance with precision in a contest filled with ripping winners and angled net play. Post match, he lead every statistic off both serve and return. Lopez, meanwhile, was on fire in Cincinnati, producing his ‘A’ game when it mattered. His net play was fantastic, his backhand slice sustaining him greatly during rallies, and his deep, flat shots equally able to keep Rafa on the back foot, and rip breath-taking winners. His performance in the final set tiebreak was brilliant. Yet several key factors from Rafael Nadal aided his opponents to victory. Kei Nishikori could not have cracked down so efficiently on the Rafa shots if Nadal had regularly applied sufficient depth to them. If the Spaniard had done so, and Kei employed the same tactics, the Japanese strokes would often have fallen to the midcourt… allowing Rafa to seize the upper hand. And the flat groundstrokes of the world no. 23 surely enjoyed the looping shots flying from Rafa’s racquet. While the 29-year-old played a far higher quality match against his fellow countryman, Feliciano’s timely retrievals of the 8th seed’s most potent weapon caused real trouble. When it came to hitting winners, the lower ranked Spaniard often made the first move. Rafa’s serve, also, is not the cutting weapon it once was, its heavy spin now more of a time-granter to his foes. Kei attacked it with as much enthusiasm as he did the groundstrokes, and even when it struck the line, this initial shot was more a rally starter than an attempted winner. Needless to say, this doesn’t compliment Nadal’s current game. Alongside these worries, there’s his backhand to consider: Consistently a defensive option, and lacking the depth or power to regularly inflict damage. Yet despite all this, Rafa’s main issue still seems to be psychological. An issue so important that it deserves its own heading: THE MINDSET As I have referenced many times over, Rafa’s autobiography – entitled ‘Rafa: My Story’ – is an eye-opening read with continual emphasis on the importance of a strong mentality. According to the Mallorcan, there is little margin in talent between the top 200 players in the world. What differs is consistency – stemming from mindset and belief. Back in 2013, after an eight month hiatus from the sport, Rafa mounted a legendary comeback in which he swept Slams at Roland Garros and the US Open. He also dominated the hard-court season. The latter achievement followed a shocking first round Wimbledon loss to Steve Darcis that triggered worries over his knee, and his future. His confidence was soaring. But with this year’s struggles, Rafa’s greater nervousness in key moments has been on full display. And his off-court admissions of these troubles, while admirably honest, could be hurting him now. The competition that once fell in awe before Rafael Nadal have not just seen him struggle, but have heard his confessions of vulnerability. And while Nadal is gradually regaining belief, we can see that there’s still a long way to go. Such things as his double fault down break point in the second set to Kei Nishikori, his tiebreak loss to Feliciano Lopez, and his inability to convert some massive break points prove this. While evidence of weakness under pressure continues, his opposition are mounting in confidence. Rafa is beating some of them… But until something big happens, he’s not beating them all. FLUSHING MEADOWS Everything said, is there any hope for Rafael Nadal at Flushing Meadows? Actually, yes, there is – if only he can clean up that mentality. And if Rafa looks to the right places, there is encouragement to aid his cause. 2013 was the surprise season in which Nadal had everyone’s number on the hard-courts – from the lowest ranked wildcard right up to Novak Djokovic. From the Masters 1000s to the US Open, Rafa was sweeping everything. And as it happens, he hasn’t played the US Open since this run of dominance. For the rest of 2015, after problems encircled him last year, Rafael Nadal is defending practically nothing by way of ranking points. He’s on a winning streak at the US Open. And he possesses legendary status. If he wants to – and if his deep-thinking mind allows him the luxury – Rafa can use this positive thinking to resurrect some confidence in himself and his game. Obviously there are technical issues to sort out. But if the Spaniard can get his internal state back on track, the rest will follow. Forehands are miscued by a doubting mind, and balls shrink away from the lines out of fear. Rafa has more going for him at the US Open than it would first appear – if only he would look for it. The good news for Nadal is that he clinched a top-eight seed at the U.S. Open thanks to Marin Cilic’s loss on Thursday (and if you want to talk about struggling players, the reigning Open champ is right in that conversation). But the bad news is that he might not even get to see the fruits of his seeding, not when he’s lost on hard c0urts this year to players ranked No. 34, No. 124 and No. 127, among others. And just remember: Nadal still feels that he has more to give. He’s not giving up until he’s satisfied. Rafael Nadal isn’t himself. Will he ever be again?