But perhaps no one in the last fifty years has intrigued me more as a human being than Rafael Nadal. He has brought a singular brand of joy, verve and intensity to the arena, an earnest and unshakable professionalism, and a deep sense of humility that has been exceeded by no one in the upper reaches of the sport with the exception of the honorable Australian Ken Rosewall. Nadal refuses every invitation to pat himself on the back. He is appreciative of all the prestigious prizes he garners, taking nothing for granted, respecting all of his adversaries regardless of their rankings. He is a fundamentally decent fellow with a highly unusual outlook for an athlete of his stature. No matter how much he wins, regardless of his standing at any given time, Nadal seems to be listening to a very loud inner voice telling him, “Don’t get carried away. Success is fleeting. This could be over tomorrow.”
That philosophy of treating himself as simply a hard working man doing the best he can to succeed in a ferociously competitive field has served the Spaniard remarkably well over the course of his storied career. His self effacing nature has defined his staunch character, and endeared him to fans in every corner of the globe. But now Nadal needs to remind himself who he is, why he has come through so frequently under pressure, and how he secured 14 major titles from 2005-2014. The fight for Nadal to reestablish his identity, recover his confidence and reignite his game will not be easy.
The past couple of years have been emotionally taxing and complicated for this left-hander with a singularly large heart and a work ethic that is surely second to none in his profession. The year 2014 was the start of a downward spiral for the Spaniard. He seemed certain to open that campaign with a triumph at the Australian Open. Nadal upended Roger Federer to reach the final in Melbourne, and faced Stan Wawrinka for the title. Nadal owned a 12-0 career winning record over the Swiss No. 2, and had never even lost a set to a big hitter who had never taken a major singles title.
In the warmup for that match, Nadal felt something uncomfortable in his back. After losing the first set and falling behind in the second, with the pain worsening, he took an injury timeout. Nadal returned but was clearly not himself, and Wawrinka played beautifully to win in four sets.The back issues lingered into the spring, and en route to Roland Garros even his revered clay court game was nowhere its normal level. Somehow he managed to collect a ninth crown at the French Open with a four set victory over Novak Djokovic, thus extending his men’s record of winning at least one major to ten consecutive seasons. He took that title essentially on reputation, determination, ingenuity and willpower.
And yet, the rest of that year was a wipeout. After losing to a highly charged Nick Kyrgios on the Centre Court of Wimbledon in the fourth round, Nadal barely competed the rest of the year, missing the U.S. Open with a wrist injury, dealing with an appendectomy in the autumn. Although he did capture three tournament titles in 2015, he fared badly in the majors, losing in the quarterfinals of the Australian and French Opens, falling in the second round of Wimbledon, and bowing out of the U.S. Open in the third round despite taking a two sets to love lead over Fabio Fognini.
That was irrefutably the low point for Nadal, who had not squandered a two set lead since early in 2005 against Federer in Miami. He was clearly at an intricate crossroads. But then he seemed to move past his disappointments and toward the positive psychological territory he had regularly inhabited during sunnier stretches. It was a different and more self assured Nadal who recovered a large measure of pride and conviction across the autumn. After the Open, he appeared in five ATP World Tour events and also played one Davis Cup match. He won 17 of 22 matches in that span. In the five tournaments, he lost only to Djokovic (twice), Federer, Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He reached two finals (Beijing and Basel), two semifinals (Shanghai and London) and one quarterfinal (Paris). Moreover, he recorded two wins over Wawrinka and one over Andy Murray in that stretch.
Things were looking up for Nadal as he approached 2016. He plainly was revitalized, and was seemingly feeling considerably more optimistic. In the final of his opening tournament, he reached the final in Doha. Although he was clobbered 6-1, 6-2 by a sublime Djokovic, the fact remained that Nadal was maintaining his week in, week out consistency, and he seemed fully capable of reaching at least the semifinals and perhaps the final of the Australian Open. But he suffered a jarring setback there, falling in five sets against Fernando Verdasco in that clash of southpaw Spaniards.
Despite that startling and unjustifiable defeat—his third consecutive early round loss in a Grand Slam event—Nadal sounded upbeat and ready to make swift amends. He had a few weeks off, and then went this past week to Buenos Aires to the Argentina Open in search of a 48th career clay court title. Nadal had ample time to prepare for that event after the quick departure in Melbourne. This was a chance to jumpstart his 2016 season and get back into the stable mindset that characterized his play late in 2015.
Nadal was not very impressive in cutting down Juan Monaco and Paolo Lorenzi to set up a semifinal appointment with Dominic Thiem, the big hitting, 22-year-old Austrian. This was a significant test not only for Thiem—who had beaten only one top ten ranked player in his still young and rapidly evolving career— but also for Nadal, who knew full well that he was confronting a dangerous player who leaped into the world’s top twenty at the end of 2015 and now stood at No. 19.
Thiem has an awful lot going for him: a terrific one-handed topspin backhand, a vicious kick serve in the ad court that lands short and bounds up high and wide, a crackling forehand that is his point dictating shot, and a tactical flexibility that is rare for a player of his age and relative inexperience. To be sure, Thiem, who had played Nadal only once before back in 2014 at Roland Garros, was always going to be a dangerous opponent for the Spaniard, particularly if the Spaniard was not near the peak of his current powers.
Nadal made just the start he would have wanted, securing an early 2-0 lead by breaking Thiem in the second game with some solid returning and good depth in the rallies. Nadal thus had the opportunity to seize control of the set if he could hold in the third game. A confident Nadal would have done just that. Instead, he faltered, losing his serve at 15 with a pair or unforced errors off the forehand. Rather than building a 3-0 lead and leaving Thiem with a difficult uphill battle, Nadal had allowed his foe right back into the set. Thiem now started hitting out freely off the forehand. He rallied to 2-2 and both men held for 3-3.
In the seventh game, Nadal saved a break point with his familiar ad court wide serve setting up a trademark inside out forehand winner. He held for 4-3 and then had a break point in the eighth game. He stood one point away from serving for the set. Thiem’s second serve on that point was unexceptional, but Nadal bungled the return flagrantly, smothering his forehand with excessive topspin into the net. He looked baffled and disconcerted after that lost opportunity. Thiem held on, broke Nadal in the following game, and served out the set in the tenth game. The 6-4 scoreline for Thiem could easily have been reversed. Nadal had wasted his early chance with the 2-0 lead, and had then squandered that break point for 5-3.
On to the second set. Nadal competed with quiet fury to keep himself in the match while Thiem sustained a high level of play. At 3-3, Thiem had a break point but Nadal erased it with a magnificent inside in forehand winner. At 4-4, Nadal surged to 40-0 but needed five game points before holding on tenuously to establish a 5-4 lead. Nadal broke through in the following game to seal the set 6-4. It was one set all. Nadal seemed likely to seize control of the contest from that juncture on.
But Thiem had one of his most effective return games at the outset of the third set. He broke for 1-0. Nadal saved two break points but Thiem was controlling points largely, and he sealed the break on the third opportunity before holding for 2-0. Nadal proceeded to play a superb service game to hold at love in the third game, unleashing a backhand crosscourt winner, an inside out forehand winner, and a couple of stinging backhands that forced errors.
Thiem missed a smash from on top of the net in the following game that enabled Nadal to reach 30-30, and the Spaniard took full advantage of that lapse. He broke for 2-2 and held at love for 3-2. Thiem appeared to be fatigued, but he halted Nadal’s three game surge, holding for 3-3. At 4-4, Nadal revealed some unmistakable anxiety, double faulting for 15-30. But Thiem failed to make good on his opening. Nadal squirmed out of trouble, winning three points in a row for 5-4. In the following game, he advanced to match point. He hit a reasonably deep ball down the middle, and Thiem seemed slightly off balance as he leaped up and out to hit an inside out forehand winner. He was rolling the dice to a degree, but the gamble worked to the hilt; his shot turned into a dazzling winner. After five deuces, with both men playing some extraordinary tennis, Thiem held on gamely for 5-5. Both men held to set up a tie-break.
Nadal commenced that sequence in the worst possible way, double faulting into the net on the first point. Thiem was buoyed by that surprise start. He used a strong first strong first serve to set up a forehand winner and then aced Nadal down the T for a 3-0 lead. Nadal won the next point, but followed with a forehand unforced error and a netted backhand drop shot. Those mistakes from Nadal lifted Thiem to 5-1. A winning overhead from the Austrian gave him a 6-1 lead. A typically resolute Nadal saved three match points, but, serving at 6-4, Thiem admirably came forward to force an errant backhand passing shot from the top seed. Thiem gained the victory 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (4).
To be sure, Thiem played a superb match, giving a first class effort all the way, somehow finding a second wind at the end, fending off Nadal down the stretch. He won the tournament on Sunday with another triumph in a final set tie-break, this time over Nicolas Almagro. Thiem is headed swiftly and surely toward the top ten, and he may challenge for the top five by next year.
But where does this loss leave Nadal? He keeps saying the right things and indicating that he is convinced he can turn things around. That is understandable. In all three matches at Buenos Aires, he was driving the forehand down the line like the prime time Rafa, and perhaps with even more authority. Against Thiem, he was cracking the backhand with improved velocity and good control, flattening out that stroke repeatedly, angling away shots crosscourt off that side and threading the needle down the line as well. The forehand drop shot was another added dimension in Nadal’s game.
And yet, the consistency we witnessed in the Nadal of old was sorely missing. He made too many unforced errors off both sides, and that was costly. Most importantly, Nadal is losing too many close encounters he once would have won; against Verdasco in Australia he was thrice two points from winning in four sets but never got across the finish line. Against Thiem, he did not convert his match point opportunity, and then played an abysmal final set tie-break.
Only a fool would say that Nadal has moved permanently beyond the point where he can be a serious threat at the majors. But he needs to make a move soon. Very soon. His supreme mental toughness and propensity to play the big points fearlessly were always his largest strengths, but not these days. The 29-year-old has not won a tournament of any kind since he triumphed on the clay of Hamburg last July. In the last three majors, he has won a total of three matches. He must be dismayed by showings that seem impossibly poor by his standards.
Nadal is an immensely modest man. Maybe that modesty is getting impeding him now. He might well be selling himself short, listening too frequently to that skeptical inner voice, and forgetting that he did not establish himself indisputably among the greatest players in the history of the game by accident. The fact remains that he has some very difficult work ahead if he wants to climb back up the ladder once more and find himself again in the latter stages of majors. His ground game must become as consistent as it once was. He needs to keep implementing the forehand down the line unhesitatingly. He would do well to use the forehand drop shot as judiciously as he did in Buenos Aires.
Above all else, Nadal can’t afford a 2016 that is strikingly reminiscent of the year gone by; this will surely be a make or break year for the unwavering Spaniard. He must start anew this week in Rio de Janeiro at the Rio Open, and demonstrate unequivocally that he still has what it takes to flourish in that rarefied air reserved only for the elite. I am beginning to have my doubts that he can still reside in the land of luminaries, but I do know this: Rafael Nadal will not surrender. He will fight with every fiber of his being to remind himself and the world that even the most humble of men can reemerge after a long time away from the summit to reclaim their former glories.