As the Australian Open kicks off this week, there has already been a few notable knockouts. None more so than Rafael Nadal. His ignominious departure coming at the hands of fellow Spaniard, Fernando Verdasco, in a 5 set epic in Melbourne.
It is the latest, and perhaps most crucial, in a series of failures and disappointments that have continually stuck to the latter part of Nadal’s career, forcing the questions over whether the charismatic Spaniard will ever get back to form.
The first eyebrow raiser began in 2013, when he suffered the first first-round loss of his career at Wimbledon, to unseeded Steve Darcis. But, unshaken, he continued an excellent season in North America, winning a second US Open title. But in 2014, several occurrences of injury in close proximity, including a back issue, hampered his Australian Open final against Stan Wawrinka. Problems then hit his assaults on titles in the China Open, Shanghai, and Switzerland, before he announced he would skip the remainder of the season to deal with his injuries.
Early round defeats at Indian Wells and the Miami Open in 2015, as well as defeats in Barcelona and Rome saw him fall down the rankings, exiting the top five for the first time in a decade. When he failed to retain his beloved French Open title, falling to Novak Djokovic in the quarter finals, and stunned by Dustin Brown in the second round of Wimbledon, that’s when Nadal’s decline very much hit home.
Back in 2005, Nadal stepped into the professional limelight at the age of 19 by winning his maiden French Open, plus his noticeably muscular build in comparison to the more wiry players like Roger Federer and Andy Roddick saw him a player to be feared. Over time, his endurance for the game increased, and his winning mentality saw him form a duopoly with Federer than endured for the better part of 5 years. Over those 5 years, he became known for his aggression on the back court returns, his tenacity for chasing long balls, his electric footwork, and his supreme forehand attacks, and the titles stacked up, as did his superiority over the likes of Andy Murray, Federer, and Juan Martin Del Potro.
Yet, at the age of 29, as players such as those above continue to age and move gracefully, yet still as destructive on court as ever, Nadal find himself being left behind. That build of his that was so lauded by female spectators now seems to be one hampering his career. Nadal seems to have a uniquely designed build for tennis, one which has left him highly susceptible to injuries, of various degrees, and one which no other player has seen fit to follow. Many experts of the game decreed it to be too reliant on strength, speed, aggression, with little attention given to fluidity, aim, and court defence. Juan Jose Vallejo suggested his body would only last 2 years back in 2009. It has prevailed this far, but little by little, Nadal has look noticeably slower, almost labouring towards the wide shots played against him, and his back court aggression continues to flounder as his shoulders and wrists wither under the immense power he puts behind his shots.
His most recent defeat is a perfect example of the contrasting situation between Nadal, and his colleagues. Fernando Verdasco is three years Nadal’s senior, but took the game to the younger man, forever scampering after Nadal’s hard hit shots, dropping shorts over the net his fellow countryman didn’t attempt to chase down. Through both the fourth and the fifth set, it always looked like it would be Verdasco’s match.
Nadal said afterwards that the game of tennis is changing. He is absolutely right, as the players become more athletic, more balanced on aggression and grace, attack and defence, power and endurance, it seems that Nadal may be one of those left behind. Even if his injuries clear up, it will take a huge change in his current playing style to reinvigorate a character who’s dominance and brilliance once left everyone in his wake.