Thursday 19 April 2018

Rafael Nadal is plummeting at a greater rate than anybody expected

On the decline: Rafael Nadal is struggling to get back to his best level Photo: GETTY IMAGES
On the decline: Rafael Nadal is struggling to get back to his best level Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Jonathan Liew

The decline of a great athlete, in its classic template, occurs in two phases.

There is the first, dramatic phase: the toppling of the crown, the surprise defeats, the niggling injuries, the salacious rumours, the numerous photographs of them staring sadly into the middle distance.

It feels like a disaster, but what we are really experiencing is shock. For the real disaster comes in the second phase: when the decline continues, and nobody cares any more.

The thing about phase one is that it is salvageable.

You can tweak a few things in your game, maybe cut a few starchy foods out of your diet, rearrange the furniture in your bedroom for improved chi, whatever.

A few bitchy internet columnists will write you off, but essentially you can recover from phase one. Virtually nobody recovers from phase two.

Which brings us to Rafael Nadal, an athlete whose decline appears to have two peculiar qualities: its speed, and his reaction to it.

As recently as last summer, Nadal was world No 1. He had just won the French Open, his 14th grand slam title. Claiming three more to draw level with Roger Federer seemed a formality. And in Federer’s charming late‑career bloom – the acclaim, the defiance of time, the occasional flash of exhibition brilliance – there was a portent for Nadal’s own.

It was a seductive image: ageing Federer and ageing Nadal duking it out for eternity, playing purely for the love of the game, and the irresistible opportunity to deny Novak Djokovic lucrative marketing contracts.

Here, instead, is what happened. Nadal is No 8 in the world. He has not beaten a top-five player for 14 months. He has not reached a hard-court final in 17 months. And more compelling still is the evidence of the eyes.

Nadal was swept aside in straight sets by Kei Nishikori last Friday, and at times it looked like Nishikori was not just playing a superior game, but a different game entirely. Nadal may still be in phase one, but he is plummeting through it faster than anybody could have expected.

The grunt is still recognisably Nadal’s grunt; the tics are still assuredly Nadal’s tics. But the strokes look tired and forced; the old wicked spinning forehand now loops innocuously and begs to be hit; the long baseline duels now feel more like work than play. His opponents look quicker, sharper, more aggressive, more dynamic. Nadal, meanwhile, perches a quarter of a mile behind the baseline, a place where he once felt strongest, but now looks weakest.

And you wonder how much he really wants to leave this place of safety, his little trench alongside the line judges and ball boys. For this is the other arresting aspect of Nadal’s decline: the extent to which he appears to be acquiescing in it. Great athletes are supposed to rage against the waning of their powers: learn new tricks, howl down their doubts. Nadal, by contrast, is indulging his. He has been startlingly candid in discussing his loss of confidence, his mental struggles, his mortal fear of collapse.

He has resisted all calls to replace his uncle Toni as coach, claiming that “family is more important than tennis”. Moreover, his Plan A has remained unchanged over a decade: run further, work harder, hustle longer, and beat you by sheer willpower, with a tie-break if necessary. Plan B: see Plan A.

These are, of course, the very same traits that drove Nadal to the top in the first place. The difference is that they are no longer working for him. The US Open begins in a fortnight, and if he loses it will be his first year without a grand slam since 2004. Yet the idea of Nadal being beaten no longer feels like a shock. Perhaps this is the real moment of danger: the point at which phase one ends, and the decline becomes terminal.

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