After Shocking Loss, Nadal at Crossroads

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NEW YORK - It was, indeed, shocking. Yet it wasn’t truly surprising.

After Rafael Nadal’s relinquishing of a two-sets-to-none (and a break) lead to Fabio Fognini, the mercurial and diminutive Italian shotmaker, in the early morning hours of Saturday there was, oddly, a faint sense of relief that seemed etched into the characteristically expressive visage of the 14-time Slam champion as he walked out of Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was as if he knew his 2015 Slam campaign couldn’t have ended any other way – that is, miserably and for him, without precedent.

And with the defeat, Nadal’s record – a record not likely to be replicated for some time - of consecutive years of winning a Slam ends at 10. It seems like just moments ago when so may thought Nadal had a legitimate chance of equaling or eclipsing Roger Federer’s record haul of 17 Slam titles; now, 10 months shy of his 30th birthday, many will ponder whether there are any Slam championships waiting in Nadal’s future.

Though Nadal had looked like his game was gradually rounding into form, the fact is there were indications in his first two matches of the tournament that he is still not himself. It was a harbinger of things to come when Nadal nearly choked away a 5-2 first-set lead over low-ranked Argentinian Diego Schwartzman on Wednesday. Watching him at Armstrong Stadium on that hot and sunny afternoon, Nadal’s lack of conviction when in a position to put away an opponent – something he used to do routinely – was palpable.

After such a riveting and momentum-shifting contest as Nadal and Fognini played in front of a raucous night crowd, the inevitable question rises to the fore - was it a choke or a great comeback. For his part, Nadal put all the credit on Fognini, saying in the press conference afterward, “It was not a match that I lost, even if I had opportunities. It’s a match that he wins.”

And, further, Nadal put the defeat in the larger context of the season. “I (fought) until the last point all the time, good attitude, Not enough to win today. I lost a couple matches this year like this. But the good thing is my mind allows me to fight until the end as I did during all of my career. Sometimes this year I was not able to do that. I think I have a good base now. As I said, good thing is I am not playing terrible matches like I did at the beginning of the season. When I am losing, I am losing because the opponents beat me, not because I lose the match, as I did a lot of times at the beginning of the season.”

Yet for all of his optimism about the future and the refreshing perspective the thoughtful 14-time Slam champion seeks when analyzing his state of affairs, there remains a brutal truth: Nadal is physically healthy yet he hasn’t been able to play consistently good tennis for a year and a half. Does this mean it’s all mental? Is Nadal in denial about the inexorable cruelty that age inflicts on athletes decades before the rest of us? Should he hire a new coach as many have been clamoring for? Has his game become too predictable? Likely all of these are true.

What is most striking when Nadal discusses his 2015 travails is the remarkable degree of candor and vulnerability he presents. He has spoken time and again the last six months of lacking confidence. This is utterly unusual for an athlete in an individual sport to be so open about his struggles, as allowing opponents the knowledge that one is competing without full belief is usually taboo. He mentioned the confidence issue again after his loss to Fognini, stating, “If you hit the ball a bit shorter, the opponent has more space. If you hit the ball with a little bit of less confidence, then there is not as much topspin like used to be.”

The negative components that added up to Nadal’s defeat to Fognini have been present all season, such as the topspin lacking the bite that Nodal mentioned above. Additionally there was the matter of the serve, how predictable it has become and the lack of imagination on the placement of the serve, especially on the second offerings, played a large part in Nadal’s inability to hold serve in the final set.

But is it solely mental? Will Nadal suddenly believe in himself again and allow him to return to the intimidating player he was? It’s too hard to say but this much is clear – it isn’t all about a fragile tennis psyche and a lack of confidence. He is clearly a step slower and he can no longer rely on the strokes and strategies that have enabled him to become one of the all-time greatest players. Therefore some alteration is necessary. With his vastly underused front-court acumen, one place for Nadal to start would be forcing his way into the net more frequently in an effort to shorten points.

This year, watching Nadal’s topspin missives lacking the sting and depth that were once the hallmarks of his game, I thought of Stefan Edberg, the elegant Hall of Fame serve-and-volleyer who is now in Roger Federer’s employ as coach.

In 1993, at the age of 27, Edberg was ranked second as the season started and after a run to the Australian Open finals to start the year, he looked well on his way to maintaining his lofty status in the sport. In the Wimbledon semifinals that year Edberg took on Jim Courier, who, though top-ranked, was the decided underdog against Edberg, who was a grass-court specialist. During their encounter, Edberg’s second serves – once his greatest asset – started sitting up, lacking the vicious kick they once possessed. It was evident to all that his game had suddenly declined, and he would only return to the semifinals one time over his last 13 Slam appearances.

There isn’t a set pattern on how tennis champions’ careers decline and end in the Open Era. Jimmy Connors remained relevant until he was 39. Roger Federer is in the midst of redefining the notion of longevity at an elite level as he continues to threaten at Slams at the age of 34, even if he doesn’t win another one. John McEnroe never won a Slam after the age of 25. Bjorn Borg won his last major title when he was 25 as well. Pete Sampras’ game declined precipitously yet he was able to pull off one of the greatest exits in sports history when he won the 2002 US Open at he age of 31 and then vanished from competition.

So while Nada is clearly having a crisis of confidence, he at the same time is resolute about his career most definitely not being over and how he will be fighting hard again to return to form. His stated goal lately has been to qualify for the season-ending ATP Tour Championship in London in November, which he will likely accomplish.

But will Nadal ever return to the lofty heights that the tennis world was so accustomed to? Likely not, but with some tweaking of his game and a reset in his self-belief, it’s hard not to imagine the swashbuckling southpaw winning a couple of more Slams before one of the most singular and incandescent careers the sport has witnessed comes to its sudden – or gradual – denouement.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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