You can hardly blame Rafael Nadal if he’s feeling like his career has turned into a Vine clip—and wishing that it was a different, earlier stage of his career being endlessly replayed.
As Nadal has tried to gain traction and rebuild his once-formidable reputation, he’s come afoul of the same treacherous obstacles, over and over. Not all of them have been obvious or predictable. It’s gotten to the point where even a diehard Roger Federer fan might find himself asking, “What does poor Rafa have to do to catch a break?”
Case in point: Nadal got off to a running start this year in Doha, even if he was administered a straight-sets beatdown by Novak Djokovic in the final. But Nadal had laid the groundwork for a good Australian Open in the desert. Then, he drew one of the most treacherous first-round opponents imaginable, Fernando Verdasco.
Though he’s fallen to No. 57, Verdasco is a mercurial, talented lefty who had pushed Nadal to the absolute limit in one of the greatest of all Australian Open matches—in the 2009 semifinals, when Rafa edged his compatriot in a five-hour and 14-minute war from the baselines. The hair on the back of Verdasco’s neck gets prickly whenever he plays Nadal, as evidenced by his upset win at last year's Miami Masters. And this year in Australia, Verdasco shot the lights out, winning in five sets. You could see that one coming from an ocean away.
“I didn’t like at all the defeat in Australia, but that I cannot solve,” Nadal told reporters at his first press conference in Buenos Aires, where he’s defending the title this week. “It was a bad tournament. [It] just did not work out despite [my] having prepared very well.”
A stroke of bad luck, or evidence that, as Albert King sang, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d (Nadal) have no luck at all?” There’s plenty of evidence for the latter. What are the odds that Fabio Fognini, having found the key to exploiting a weakened Nadal early in 2015, would get the opportunity to ply his advantage over the slumping Spaniard five times last year?
By contrast, ace-machine Ivo Karlovic beat Djokovic in the first tournament each man played in 2015, Doha. Djokovic went on to win 11 titles, including three majors—and never crossed paths with Karlovic again.
Or how about Nadal’s adventures at Wimbledon? Last year, the two-time champion (and five-time finalist) lost to a player ranked outside the Top 100 for the fourth consecutive year. That’s a mind-boggling stat at various levels, including the coincidental. Yet only one of those losses was truly a stunner: the 2013 whipping administered by No. 135 Steve Darcis.
The other three outsiders who triumphed over Nadal—Lukas Rosol, Nick Kyrgios, and, most recently, Dustin Brown—all had the tools to do so, or simply played so well that their performances were rooted in the realm of the credible. A century from now, the curious might think it impossible that this was the same Nadal who played those two magnificent Wimbledon finals against a Roger Federer at the peak of his powers. We know it was.
Throughout 2015, Nadal was a perfect advertisement for the flip side of the theory that winners make their own good luck. He made his own bad luck, and got stuck in a vicious cycle. Now, to borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra—the famous American baseball player/manager and master of the malapropism—this year is starting to feel “like deja vu all over again.”
Nadal is returning from his Australian misadventure in Buenos Aires, where he’s the top seed and will restart his 2016 campaign against Juan Monaco, the same man he beat in last year’s final. Like Verdasco, Monaco is a familiar character in Nadal’s universe, albeit a more benign one. He’s a good friend and former No. 1 PlayStation buddy. But there, the chummy aspect of Nadal’s mission ends.
Fognini was a late wild-card entry into Buenos Aires—and an early casualty. The sixth seed was beaten in the first round, and the sigh of relief issuing from the Nadal camp probably could be heard all the way down to Santa Cruz. Still, there’s a passel of quality clay-court players entered in this ATP 250, so Nadal will have his work cut out for him.
Nadal has myriad reasons to break this cycle before it becomes his own personal interpretation of the hit movie “Groundhog Day.” One of the more intriguing is the threat that Djokovic presents to his legacy. With 11 Grand Slam titles to his name already, Djokovic trails Nadal by only three—and Federer, the all-time major singles title leader, by six.
Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal. But what’s worse from Nadal's perspective is that, if anything, Djokovic’s current stranglehold on the game appears to be growing stronger, while his main challengers are contending with a broad range of issues (Federer’s knee surgery) and distractions. (Andy Murray is a new father.)
This is an ideal time for Nadal to make a move, to break the pattern. His problem, aside from being snakebit, is easily summed up in two words intimately bound together with invisible string: forehand and confidence.
Reflecting on his loss to Verdasco, Nadal told the press in Melbourne: “The real thing is, I was not enough aggressive with my forehand during the whole match. I didn't feel it. I tried. I [fought]. I was ready to do it, and I didn't.”
This was not a failure of technique, although it can be discussed in technical terms having to do with the snap of the wrist, the follow-through, and the point of impact. This was not a failure of tactics, although it can be discussed in tactical terms.
“My mission is make them play with difficult positions,” Nadal said at one point. “So if they want to go for [a] lot of winners with very difficult positions, the chance of having success is not very high.”
This was a failure of inner resources, confidence chief among them.
Garden variety confidence is cumulative, and for a player making a comeback (as was the case for Nadal in 2015) it is usually restored with a a successful return to the grind. Nadal had enough success to feel confident by the middle of last year, but it never stuck. Judging from his Australian Open, he’s still incapable of trusting himself and his game.
What is missing is the fearlessness that once allowed Nadal to wallop forehands in an unthinking, orgiastic fury, with frightening velocity and terrifying conviction. His specialty was crowding opponents into dark corners where they cowered, their racquets serving as little more than mere shields failing to protect them from the inevitable. Nadal once kicked in doors; now he knocks on them uncertainly.
The funny thing about fearlessness is that once lost, it’s usually impossible to recover. So it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see Nadal 2.0 again. But there are other ways to get the job in tennis done, and ways to calm jittery nerves. Finding those ways remains Nadal’s main job for the foreseeable future.