Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  Can Rafael Nadal get his groove back?

As he exited the Arthur Ashe Stadium, and made his long, solitary walk to the locker rooms, under the late-night lights last Friday, Rafael Nadal wore a despondently bleak look. His shoulders were slumped, his face was crunched into a wrinkle, his eyes were shut tight, and his cheeks were puffed. Tennis, even at the best of times, can be a lonely pursuit. Any defeat can make you feel alone, and the only solace that you have, strangely enough, is to return to the solitude on court. But this was worse than any defeat for Nadal. It was a loss that appeared to set him on the path to a potentially perennial slump. Once an awesome power, Nadal was today a decidedly mortal figure, a player who opponents now believed was eminently beatable, not on Nadal’s terms, but by the force of their own racquets.

Until he met the Italian Fabio Fognini in the third round of the US Open, Nadal had led two sets to love in grand slam contests on 151 occasions, and had never lost any of those matches. In fact, the only time in his career that Nadal had allowed such a lead to slip was in the final of the Miami Masters in 2005, to Roger Federer, when he was still only 19 years old. Yet, it was precisely such a lead, which previously, for Nadal, had been an unassailable one, that he squandered against Fognini, a player renowned more for his eccentric on-court antics than any tenacious ability to mount a comeback. Incredibly, though, Fognini’s triumph, when it ultimately arrived, appeared to carry an air of unerring inevitability about it.

2015 has been a season of tumbling records, almost all of the wrong kind, for Nadal. It’s the first time since 2005 that he’s ended a calendar year without a single grand slam title. At the Australian Open, he suffered a debilitating loss in the quarterfinals to the Czech Tomas Berdych. Prior to their meeting in Melbourne, Berdych had lost a record 18 times in a row to Nadal. But at Rod Laver Arena, every pounding forehand that Berdych produced left Nadal stranded. In the first two sets, Nadal won only two games, playing as though he was in a state of daze, like a featherweight was thrown into a heavyweight bout. He was repeatedly blown away in the slipstream by Berdych’s whirlwind-like groundstrokes. By the time Nadal could offer even a modicum of a fight, it was far too late; the knockout punch had already landed. At the French Open, where Nadal has won nine titles, and where he had lost only once in his entire career, he was once again defeated in the quarterfinals. Ordinarily, to lose to Novak Djokovic, the world’s No.1 player, is no shame. But to be humbled in three routine straight sets on the terre battue of Roland Garros, which Nadal strode over so imperiously not too long ago, is the ultimate insult for him. At Wimbledon, just weeks later, there was worse to come. The German Dustin Brown, ranked 102 in the world, bettered Nadal in four sets that made the Spaniard look all too average. For a lay-watcher, it would have been hard to tell who the journeyman player was.

The signs of Nadal’s decline this year have been telling. Most prominent is an apparent belief recently ingrained in opponents that Nadal is no longer the overwhelming force that he once was. His aura has been thoroughly dispelled. In the past, when Nadal came undone, through much of 2014 for example, it was evident that his body—his knees, his back, and his wrists at different points of time—was thwarting him. No doubt there were occasions when he was beaten in a proper contest, even when fully fit, but he was rarely outclassed. When Nadal really floundered, his waning physical condition often played a significant role. It tended to visibly impede his almost breathlessly spectacular style of tennis. On those occasions, such as during the final of the 2014 Australian Open, which he lost to Stanislas Wawrinka, Nadal’s body would simply not allow him to chase after every lost cause, to play every point like his life depended on it, a punishing style that in his formative years had come to represent his leitmotif.

But today, there are no obvious signs of injury. To the naked eye, at any rate, it seemed Nadal was moving fluidly enough in his match against Fognini. In the first two sets, he was even unduly comfortable—there were some commentators who believed at the time that Nadal was approaching the kind of form that could prove a difficult contest for Djokovic, who he would have met had he reached the quarterfinals. And yet, as the match wore on, as Fognini found his rhythm, Nadal’s tennis wavered. He was still moving around the court swiftly, and he was still finding reasonable angles on his groundstrokes, but far too often he gave Fognini the time and space to find a winner. What then, it makes you wonder, is now ailing Nadal?

By Nadal’s own assessment, it’s speed, or the lack of speed, which is proving difficult to surmount. Not speed in his legs, but speed off his tennis racquet. “I am playing with little bit less mistakes than before," he said, after his match against Fognini. “I have better feelings on the ball. Now remain to have again the speed, that extra speed on the ball, on the winner." It’s of course uplifting to see this confidence in Nadal in the wake of his defeat. Indeed, it’s even arguable that compared with some of his early losses this year, such as the one he suffered against World No.127 Michael Berrer at Qatar in his first match of the season, his loss to Fognini was less damaging. But the collective spectrum of defeats that Nadal has suffered over the course of the season has been astonishing; it’s made, at any rate, a profound dent on his reputation for impregnability. In many people’s minds, any sense of self-assurance that Nadal might now exhibit at a press conference is simply misplaced. To them, we’ll never see the Nadal of old again. His style of tennis, in their opinions, has proved far too destructive on his body, a factor that has ultimately filtered into his game too.

But, wouldn’t it be too impulsive to write Nadal off, even given the depths of his plunge this year? After all, he’s won more grand slam titles than every other player in history barring Roger Federer (who has 17 championships) and Pete Sampras, with whom Nadal is level on 14 major titles. At one point, not too long ago, it seemed it was a case of when, not if, Nadal would surpass Federer’s tally. Their rivalry had come to represent tennis as a global spectacle. But Nadal’s domination over Federer was so complete that the anointment of Federer as the greatest player of all time seemed somehow premature. But, today, as Nadal’s performances have collapsed, Federer’s greatness once again seems illuminated. What’s strange, though, is that it is perhaps from Federer that Nadal can now draw his ultimate inspiration.

No doubt, as is apparent to even the novice-eye, Nadal’s and Federer’s games are foundationally distinct. When you watch Nadal play, he gives you a clear sense that, to him, every point is a struggle, a struggle that he not only embraces, but also appears to relish. Federer’s approach is rather different. His style is fundamentally geared by a will to impose himself on a match. His game revolves around his strong serve and his whiplash forehand, which allow him to dominate points right from the outset. But much like Nadal, Federer too appeared to be spent not too long ago.

In 2013, what had hitherto appeared to be a steady regression of Federer’s game had suddenly turned into a drastic slide. He failed to win a single major all year, and, what’s worse, he tumbled miserably in the second round at Wimbledon and in the fourth round at the US Open. The timing on his forehand appeared to have diminished, and his single-handed backhand, which was, by then, an improved attacking weapon, had also gone back into its shell. But, as it turned out, his losses to various journeymen players that year merely represented the apex of a trough. There was work for him to do, there were improvements to be made, but he was anything but a finished force.

As his form at the US Open this year has shown us, Federer is still capable of summoning his finest talents. He may not have won a major title since hiring Stefan Edberg as coach at the beginning of last year, but what is especially evident in recent months in Federer is a revival of his old confidence. He trusts his own abilities a lot more than he might have a few years back, and his forehand has slowly regained its silken edge. Most significantly, there’s once again a certain sense of joy and freedom to his game—he’s plotting new moves, he’s serving and volleying on occasion, he’s floating around the court as elegantly as ever, and he’s playing with his old, distinctive sense of poise, authority and verve.

It’s impossible to tell how much of a tangible difference Edberg might have made to Federer’s game. At the time when he hired the Swede, Federer said the move was designed to stimulate excitement. “I don’t see Edberg in a coaching role," he said. “More as an inspiration, a legend joining my team, just spending time and discussing (tennis) really." There have certainly been notable changes to Federer’s tactics in these last two years, such as his ploy to shorten points to the extent possible, by attacking the net more, or by hitting the lines at every opportunity, especially off his forehand. But, matters of strategy apart, he also ostensibly appears inspired. He feels like he’s king again.

Nadal is desperately in requirement of similar impetus. He ought to be told, he ought to be shown, that tennis can still be fun. To Nadal, the fun often lies in the struggle, the struggle in chasing every ball, in making his opponent earn every point. He is 29 now, and at a stage of his career, where an endeavour to transform his game would be foolhardy. What he really needs to be told is that his game, in its classical shape, is just fine. It’s unlikely that he will look beyond his uncle Toni as coach. After all, Toni has moulded Nadal’s game since he was just a four-year-old. But Nadal needs someone—perhaps that someone is his uncle Toni, after all—to help him rediscover his love for tennis, to help him play the sport based on instinct, unimpeded by any sense of fright or dread. To play with freedom might produce two entirely different styles from Federer and Nadal—in that the former might view freedom as a call for attacking insouciance and the latter might see it as a call for belief in his fundamental ways, to play every point like it’s the last act of his life. But to both Federer and Nadal, freedom involves a repudiation of fear. And there lies the panacea. If Nadal can replicate Federer’s attitude this year, the rest is merely a matter of form.

Suhrith Parthasarathy is a lawyer and writer living in Chennai, India. He tweets @suhrith.

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