Nadal’s early exit from yet another slam has begun to trouble the minds of tennis fans with the question- “Is it the end of the road for the Spaniard?”. Most people would like to believe it isn’t and that the 14-time Grand slam champion is not done yet, but results indicate otherwise. The fact that Rafael Nadal is done at least in terms of being a constant Grand Slam threat, even on his favored clay, might well be true. Nadal has now failed to reach a quarter-final in any of the slams this year and has not won a major since the 2014 French Open. For a man who won a slam every year between 2005 and 2014, it is a marked decline, and so it’s understandable that there are those suggesting Nadal may be a busted flush.
The dominance of Nadal, especially on clay, was predicated by a startling lateral speed that allowed him to play an unparalleled defense. It worked wonders when he was young, but not any more, since his aggressive style of play has taken a huge toll on his body.
Clearly, Nadal thinks otherwise. After an agonising five-set loss to Pouille in the fourth round of the US Open, the 30-year-old was asked – as he is whenever he loses at a major – whether he will ever win a 15th slam.
Nadal responded: “You can see it or you can write the way that you want. I know what’s going on. I know what I have to do. It is just a couple of things that for some reasons didn’t happen, and you need to be ready to be (self-critical). It is something that I believe is really going to change.”
He also bristled when it was put to him that he has struggled under pressure in the last couple of years. “I’m 30 years old. After having the career that I have, it is not a question of pressure,” he answered.
The Mallorcan may well be right, but the most pressing issue right now is staying free of injuries, which forced him to pull out of both the French Open and Wimbledon, and left him under-cooked for the US Open. However, it is worth remembering that after knee troubles decimated the second half of his 2009 season, the Spaniard came back to win three majors in 2010. It was a similar story three years ago when Nadal won two majors after tendinitis in his knee and then a stomach virus had forced him to miss the 2012 Olympics and the next two grand slams.
Rafa’s uncle and coach Toni Nadal was clear that the recent injury problems could be overcome. “We have always had injuries, but it is no problem,” he said at the US Open last week. “It’s not a big problem. For him, it is not hard work. The work is in the head. We are prepared to work hard and make good things again.”
Nadal must also somehow try to rediscover his intimidation factor and ability to deal with pressure. He can deny feeling tense in pressure situations, but the rash of tight grand slam defeats (his last three major losses have all been five-setters) suggests otherwise. Rediscovering his aura and killer instinct will perhaps be the most difficult aspect of his game to repair, but Nadal can take inspiration from Roger Federer, who recovered so impressively from a confidence crisis in 2013 to reach three slam finals in the last two years.
Nadal may never be the dominant player in men’s tennis again, he may never win three majors in a year again, and he will probably never go an entire clay court season undefeated again, but in a period of tennis when Federer is seemingly coming towards the end of his career and none of the young pretenders are as yet fulfilling their potential, he should not be counted out from winning another slam.
Nadal has come back from the brink before, and he can do it again.