Everyone blinks. It’s a fact of life. The average person blinks 15 times a minute. But a tennis champion of the caliber of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal can only blink half-a-dozen times in a career before critics and pundits begin to question the superiority that once made them giants among men—or at least men in short pants.
This is the boat Nadal finds himself in following his losses in back-to-back clay-court tournaments. The question “What’s wrong with Rafa?” first popped up in Miami after his desultory performance against Novak Djokovic. It picked up steam and a new urgency when he lost to countryman David Ferrer in Monte Carlo a little over a week ago. And now the question is broached even in better company, and at a higher pitch, because Nadal lost in Barcelona, a tournament he had won eight consecutive times, to Nicolas Almagro, a player he had never lost to in 10 career matches.
What’s wrong with Rafa is that he blinked. This was something that, while inevitable, isn’t predictable. You never know when it will happen in the back half of a champion’s career, though if you paid close attention during the two U.S. hard-court events (Miami, in particular) you were better prepared than some for this moment.
Nadal, who previously never met a break point he didn’t love or a set point that he didn’t jump on, whether on defense or on the offensive, blinked. In Monte Carlo, Ferrer and Nadal each had 10 break points. Ferrer punched through to break four times; Nadal did so on just three chances.
In Barcelona, Nadal was able to capitalize on just five of a whopping 18 break points, providing Almagro with 13 hero moments. Meanwhile, Nadal was able to fend off just three of the seven break points Almagro accumulated. In situations where Nadal is expected to come up big, he came up small. He blinked.
More telling, perhaps, has been Nadal’s body language. Time was, one of the stock images of Nadal at a critical juncture had him receiving serve with his legs spread wide, leaning into the court and swaying slightly, chin nearly touching the ground and beads of perspiration trickling from his stringy hair to explode like crystals on the court.
Now, at some critical moments, Nadal is the slump-shouldered guy shuffling from one side of the court to the other after a blown chance, head hung to reveal a developing bald spot. If he looks up, it isn’t to meet the gaze of his opponent but to cast a fleeting glance of doubt toward his crew up in the player guest box.
Every great player goes through something like what Nadal is presently experiencing. As Steve Tignor wrote in his Racquet Reaction on the Nadal-Almagro match, Rafa may be going through the beginning stages of something like what Federer endured in 2010. Like Federer, Nadal set the bar awfully high for himself, back in what once seemed an endless succession of unblinking days. But things have changed, as they must. As they will.
There’s no doubt that at age 27, and with 13 Grand Slam titles under his belt, the timing of this tremor in Nadal’s confidence is—what’s the right word?—understandable.
Nadal has been awfully good for an awfully long time, and thus he’s subject to something that the Stanislas Wawrinkas and even Andy Murrays of this world may never know. Something I’ve always called “champion’s fatigue.”
If you’re familiar with the concept of “metal fatigue,” you’ll know what I mean. Bend a piece of metal often enough and at some point it grows weak and breaks. And that’s what happens to the focus of the greatest of champions. Their focus fails at unexpected times, much like a piece of metal that finally snaps after so much stress.
This isn’t a matter of technique or strategy. I don’t believe Nadal’s game has changed one iota, and it certainly hasn’t declined—how could it, in so short a period of time? What’s happened, it seems, is that at those moments when Nadal used to lift his game in a way that few players can, he’s been unable to rise with consistency above what might be called the norm.
It includes moments such as when Almagro served for the upset at 5-4 in the third. Nadal had an easy forehand putaway that would have converted a break point, but the ball smacked the tape and fell on his own side. Unforced error. Almagro goes on to hold for the win.
Champion’s fatigue is a little different from choking, or a simple loss of confidence. Winning and losing on the pro tour are learned experiences, and it’s no easier there as anywhere else to forget what you’ve absorbed.
I don’t believe Nadal was waiting to receive Almagro’s serve, thinking: Oh gosh, what if he beats me for the first time in 11 matches? What would Uncle Toni think? What would Barcelona think? It wasn’t so much a case of something holding Nadal back as a case of nothing pushing him forward. In some ways, it comes down to something really simple: How many times does a champion feel the need or desire to prove himself, and how long before each time no longer feels like the first time?
It’s as if a player as successful as Nadal ultimately comes up against a wall, a breaking point. He can’t keep doing what he’s been doing, because even excellence reaches a point of diminishing returns. There are stirrings of rebellion in the spirit: Tell me again, why exactly do I need to keep doing this?
And, because a champion is above all such a self-interested creature, this fatigue also has a useful function. A break in unrelenting excellence serves to shake things up. It reminds people not to take things for granted. It takes a story that has come to a dead end and gives it a twist that opens up an entirely new narrative.
The story of Nadal’s excellence suddenly becomes the story of Nadal’s frailty, and if he’s truly a champion it will just as surely morph into a tale of newfound strength and a glorious resurgence. All sports stories are ultimately clichés, and none as mortifyingly so as that of a champion who gets up off the mat to dust himself off and go on to win the fight.
Nadal will get up off that mat.
Also, keep in mind that Nadal has to make things interesting for himself, as well as for us. And there’s nothing like a bloody nose to ratchet up your fighting spirit.
Well, we’re getting a step or three ahead of ourselves here. For all I know, Nadal will rip through the fields at Madrid, Rome, and Paris, and all will be well again in Rafaland.
Maybe he’s already at that point. If you doubt that these recent losses are sufficiently painful to effect a transformation somewhere in Nadal’s psyche, keep in mind that to the Spanish, Barcelona is an event of enormous importance and prestige. If it weren’t, Nadal might not have put it on his schedule so consistently, nor and performed so impeccable (eight titles in 10 tries) on its storied clay courts.
This helps explain why Almagro went ballistic with joy after beating Nadal; Paris is the only place on earth where taking down Rafa is a more impressive, resonant feat. Nadal is as aware of that as anyone, which is why he’s likely to get over his bout of champion’s fatigue. The great ones always do, and that usually means hell amongst the yearlings.