Last night, for the first time since 2008, Rafael Nadal lost an opening-round match. But that didn’t seem to be what was bugging him the most afterward.
“This year has been fantastic for me, with tough moments,” Nadal said. “Today is probably a tough one. But worst when you lose five finals.”
Nadal appeared to be trying, at first, to bring his typically concise sense of perspective to his surprising, thrilling, third-set-tiebreaker defeat at the hands of Croatia’s dogged Ivan Dodig. But what he ended up doing was reminding himself of how tough those final-round losses in 2011 have been to swallow. He had to repeat the fact, for our benefit and his:
“I lost five finals this year.” The words, on paper at least, sound a little haunted.
Did those defeats, all of which came at the hands of Novak Djokovic, and one of which was also in a third-set breaker, factor into this match? I don’t think they did in a specific way. This loss was as much about his opponent, who played fearlessly and intelligently, and about the basic uncertainties and reversals that come with the sport. As Nadal said, “You are winning without many problems, you have one mistake, and after the opponent start to play very well, play very aggressive.”
That’s just tennis at the professional level, and especially at the Masters Series level. As I’ve said before, what’s been most remarkable about this period in the men's game is how few times the top players let matches like these, against opponents with little to lose, get away from them. Credit Dodig first. He knew he had to take his chances, and he took them. He went after first balls in rallies, even when he was falling backward, and came up with winners. He served and volleyed; that is, when he had to volley—he finished with 18 aces, including 11 in the third set alone. He was effective with the wide one in the deuce court and he came in behind it, but what made it really effective was how many times he threw in an ace up the T; Nadal couldn’t lean either way. Dodig pushed forward at all times, and when he couldn’t, he matched Nadal for scrambling hustle—also something we rarely see.
Two other aspects of Dodig’s performance were even more impressive. First was his level head. I’ve seen him be very animated on court in the past, but he kept everything in last night. Whatever the score or situation, he wore the same hungry, I’ll-try-anything expression, and he walked with the same no-frills, no-drama sense of purpose—in that, and in his similarly no-frills strokes, he reminded me of Nadal’s countryman David Ferrer. The second thing I liked was his pace of play: On his serve, Dodig gave Nadal very little time between points. He collected the balls and was back at the line ready to serve almost immediately. Usually, it’s Nadal who controls the tempo, but even he seemed to be following Dodig’s lead and moving more quickly on his own serve. Something for opponents of Rafa’s to consider in the future: Don’t let him get settled and into his rituals.
From a psychological standpoint, though, Dodig was fortunate to have been behind the entire match. He lost the first set badly, was down a break in the second set, down 0-3 in the third, down 5-4 in the final tiebreaker. During that entire time, he could play with nothing to lose. Typically, all of that changes once an underdog gets the lead; then he’s got something to lose, and he usually loses it. But Dodig had the lead in this match for exactly one point. Credit him again, though: He didn’t play that one point hoping Nadal would miss (he wasn’t going to miss). Instead Dodig took an all-or-nothing backhand crosscourt rip that must have caught a piece of the sideline (I couldn’t see where it landed over Nadal’s head). He took his chances until the end—but I’ll bet he's glad that he didn’t have to serve it out.
What does this say about Rafa at the moment? It says, on one level, that this was his first match in five weeks, and that he had only practiced at full strength for one of them. He still moved and played well for most of it, didn’t show any signs of physical problems, ended up winning more points than his opponent, and had multiple chances to put the thing away. So, no, this is not a sign of doom. It reminds me as much as anything of Roger Federer in the summer of 2008. Federer had lost to his rival in a tough Wimbledon final, and he kept losing through the summer—until he won the U.S. Open, that is. If anything, Federer, who was deep in shank city at that point, looked worse that year in Toronto and Cincy than Nadal did last night.
But if this isn’t a sign of doom, it is a change from the past for Nadal, and you don’t have to stretch too far to link it to his losses earlier this year, in those five finals that he can’t forget. It isn’t just that Nadal has never lost first-rounders; it’s that before this year he never seemed to lose close matches, period. Now he is. In the past, if he wasn’t playing well, he could find his way out and come up with the big forehand down the line at the right moment to change the momentum or seal a tiebreaker. Last night, Nadal seemed to have everything but that killer clutch shot. His serve deserted him at the end, and he was misfiring on his down the line forehand. It was also his forehand, his bread and butter shot, that let him down in the Wimbledon final. He missed one down the line to be broken in the first set against Djokovic, and he missed a couple of routine ones in the last game of the match. They were like lifelines to his nervous opponent.
For the first time, there’s an uncertainty to Nadal on the big points, even on the forehand side. In one sense, that’s just tennis, and nobody’s better at keeping wins and losses and the possibility of both in concise perspective. The difference now is that Nadal doesn’t just know he can lose the big points in theory; he knows it from hard experience. And he knows it a little better after last night. In the past, he was a Houdini in the clutch moments, stealing away with five-set Grand Slam finals and innumerable Masters wins over his closest rivals. That invincibility wasn’t normal, but it was the norm for him.
Federer didn’t go into permanent decline in 2008. But compared to his Olympian ways of the previous three years, he became a little more vulnerable—in other words, a little more normal. This year may mark the moment when Nadal follows him into normalcy. It's enough to haunt a guy.