25, Going on 50

Friday, March 23, 2012 /by

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By Pete Bodo

Not like anybody's counting or anything, but Rafael Nadal hasn't won an individual title in 11 tournaments.

Okay, I guess I'm counting.

Rafa's last triumph was at Roland Garros last June. Since then, his main rivals, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, have each collected a fistful of winner's checks. And for a while there even Andy Murray was in danger of developing tendinitis in his shoulders from hoisting crystal.

Nadal doesn't seem overly perturbed by his plight; in fact, he probably would find the use of the word "plight" excessive. He's become downright philosophical about his career and status, but that isn't usually a good sign. At times, he's sounded like he's 25 going on 50. An attractive and somewhat unusual combination of sentimental and realistic, Nadal made these remarks after he lost to his former arch-rival Federer, 6-3, 6-4, at Indian Wells a few days ago:

"The thing is not what I consider. The thing is what the people consider a good year at the end, because seems like 2011 was a bad year for me, for you, for most of you. (Smiling)

"I don't consider myself that good to consider the 2011 like a bad year, you know. I am doing a good year [in 2012], playing finals in Australia and semifinals here, for me, for myself, is a very good start of the year."

Does anyone detect a hint of defeatism and self-justification mixed in with the obvious, familiar humility (that virtue being Nadal's stock in trade, and you can hold that snark alert)? 

These things seem to underscore the idea that among all the things Nadal probably did not expect out of his career—becoming the nemesis of the all-time Grand Slam champion being one of them—the events he endured in 2011 really knocked him for a loop. Could they have been a driving force behind Rafa's more recent complaints about the toll and grind of the tour, or contributed to Rafa's apparent embrace of that other poisonous sentiment to which he's recently been prone, disillusion? 

It's legitimate to ask what on earth this once-happy child warrior is doing saying things like:

"The results last year, in my opinion, was great results for me. The feeling wasn't that great. You know, I get tired of the competition few times, and that's not the best feeling. So I gonna consider [it] a good year if I keep playing the way that I am playing. Even if I don't win something really important, I am happy. And the most important thing at this moment of my career—for sure the titles are important—but what is more important is the feeling."

Has it come to this?

It's hard to find the precise words for this, but the reality is that players can direct the tone and nature of their discourse with the press. And these days Nadal is getting pretty close to that territory so artfully occupied by Marat Safin, who had a way of turning almost all inquires into why he picked up a W or an L (especially an L) on a given day into something like a therapy session. We can appreciate Nadal for his obvious "humanity," but laying your heart bare with utter sincerity isn't necessarily the behavior most likely to make your rivals abandon their plotting and run for the hills.

Can it be that down deep Rafa feels so beleaguered that he's taken refuge in the fact that at least he enjoys what he's doing for a living? Rafa fans are lucky he didn't add those fateful words that would have made half of them keel over in a dead faint: "What is more important is the feeling. . . win or lose. . ."

We know how important it is to enjoy your work. We know that you can't be having a bad year if you you made the Australian Open final and the semis of a Masters 1000 in three tournaments. But that's not what we most want to hear from a player who, a little more than a year ago, looked like he might overtake Federer as the all-time Grand Slam singles champ. You can't criticize or second-guess Nadal for what he says he feels. But you can be puzzled or even disappointed by it.

The situation is hardly surprising considering the asymmetrical nature of Nadal's career. Nadal came along while Federer was still in his prime, and that challenge lifted the young Spanish challenger. That Djokovic, Nadal's true generational rival, took so long to mature into the force he is today lulled many of us into feeling that once Nadal displaced Federer at No. 1, he'd done the heavy lifting of his career. Whatever the future brought, Nadal would forever be the guy who brought down Federer, and the rest of it was just a matter of how many Grand Slam titles he would win, even as the occasional Djokovic, Murray, or del Potro would snatch the odd major for himself.

We can trace the Federer-Nadal rivalry back to 2005, when Federer avenged a 2004 loss to Nadal in Miami (their first-ever meeting). It took Nadal almost three-and-a-half often dramatic years to wrench the No. 1 ranking from Federer's grip, but he held that ranking for less time (just under three years) than it took him to run down Federer.

That leaves Nadal No. 7 on the ATP's "most weeks at No. 1" list, seven weeks shy of Bjorn Borg's 109 weeks atop, and one week ahead of Andre Agassi's cumulative total. Federer is No. 2 at that list, BTW, one measly week behind all-time leader Pete Sampras, who was No. 1 for 286 weeks.

Nadal could be forgiven for feeling like he'd been bushwhacked before he enjoyed his just rewards after that long hunt for Federer.

Nadal isn't done yet, but when you compare those numbers you can see how thoroughly we—and Nadal— were blindsided by Djokovic last year. You can also see where Nadal might find some motivation in the statistics, and the current state of things at the top. Djokovic is months away from his first anniversary as No. 1, and while he's still the man in charge, he's clearly slowed down.

Judging from the way Federer is playing and talking (has anyone waxed poetic on the felicitous nature of confidence more than Federer has these past months?), he's more than willing and able to knock Djokovic off his perch at the top. The more pressing question is whether Nadal, who has a right to demand more than a pound of flesh, is equally primed for the job.

Miami may be a critical test for Nadal. He could, of course, hang fire until he gets back on his beloved red clay in a few weeks. He almost certainly will win an event before the first anniversary of his last triumph, the French Open. But Nadal could cast a few monkeys off his back and make a more convincing case that he's back on track as a man for all seasons and surfaces with a win in Miami. In any event, it's about time Rafa became accustomed to living in a time of uncertainty, and making the most of it.

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