Over the first 10 days of 2017, we're examining the Top 10 players on the ATP and WTA tours—how will they fare during the new season? All of the previews can be found here.
As he begins his first full season as a 30-year-old, Rafael Nadal looms as the biggest question mark in the ATP’s Top 10. The 14-time major champion is obviously not the player he used to be; since winning the French Open in 2014, he has failed to reach the semifinals at a Slam in eight tries. Last year a wrist injury sidelined him during the summer and forced him to pull the plug on his season a month early. More concerning, though, has been the decline of his once-indomitable mental strength. As the years have gone by, Rafa has increasingly struggled to keep his nerves down and his confidence up.
Nadal’s 2016 contained reasons for hope and discouragement in roughly equal measures.
His record at the majors was just 6-3. He suffered surprise losses to lower-ranked players like Fernando Verdasco, Pablo Cuevas, Borna Coric, Lucas Pouille, Grigor Dimitrov and Viktor Troicki. And in crucial moments at the Olympics and the U.S. Open, Nadal was unable to find a healthy balance between aggression and safety; he would be tentative one minute, and suicidally aggressive the next, with nothing in between.
On the other hand, Nadal found his old clay form in the spring, when he recorded wins over Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori Dominic Thiem, and Stan Wawrinka, and won his ninth titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Before he was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros due to his wrist, he looked like he might be on track to win his 10th title in Paris. As Rafa said near the end of the year, he got hurt at exactly the wrong time.
The issue for Nadal coming into 2017 may be less his body than his mind. We know that no one at 30 can move the way they did at 20; but can an athlete at 30 think the way he did at 20? For the first 10 years of his career, Rafa had a knack for winning the points he needed; over the last two years, he has had an unfortunate knack for winning everything except the points he really needs. If he can’t turn that dynamic around, he won’t turn around his recent decline, either.