Too Soon to Panic

by: Steve Tignor | January 09, 2015

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Neither Rafael Nadal nor Novak Djokovic reached the quarterfinal round of the Qatar Open in Doha. (AP Photos)

Too Soon to Panic, a memoir of the game's amateur days by Gordon Forbes, is one of the best books that tennis has inspired. Which is appropriate, because the title still serves as a useful reminder to the sport’s most fanatical followers. When it comes to the fortunes of their favorite players, it’s always too soon to freak out. Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer: They’ve had their ups and downs, slumps and injuries, chokes and brain cramps over the last decade, but with them, trouble never lasts for long. As 2015 begins, these elder statesmen and stateswomen remain comfortably lodged in the Top 5.

But how long can that fact keep their fan camps happy and calm? The season’s first week may already be making two of them a little twitchy. In Doha, Nadal and Djokovic each headed for the exit much earlier than expected. On Tuesday, Rafa lost his opening match to 34-year-old qualifier and world No. 127 Michael Berrer 1-6, 6-3, 6-4. On Thursday, Nole went out to an even older player, Ivo Karlovic, who will be 36 next month, 6-7(2), 7-6(6), 6-4. In both cases, the world’s No. 1 and 3 players faltered down the stretch, while their lower-ranked opponents rose to the occasion.

Nerves are bound to be riding a little higher on the Nadal side, and the headlines this week played on that anxiety.

RAFAEL NADAL SUFFERS SHOCK DEFEAT TO MICHAEL BERRER IN DOHA
World No. 3 made the worst possible start to the new season

That’s how the (non-tabloid) BBC News played Rafa's defeat, and it didn’t take long for the story to zero in on the most troubling aspect of the story.

“Nadal, 28, played only seven matches between Wimbledon and the end of last season as he struggled first with a wrist injury and then appendicitis.”

This was Nadal’s first official match of 2015, and opening it with a loss to a qualifier, just two weeks before one of the year’s four majors, is unfortunate at best, troubling at worst. Rafa not only has a history of injury, he has a history of injury at this time of year, and especially at the Australian Open. In 2006, he was forced to skip the tournament with a foot problem; in 2010, he retired against Andy Murray with a knee issue; in 2011, he lost in straight sets to David Ferrer after tearing his hamstring; and last year a back spasm forced him to hobble through the last three sets of his final-round loss to Stan Wawrinka. Even in 2012, when he also made the final, he did it only after another surviving another near-knee disaster the weekend before the tournament started.

Maybe that’s why there was talk on Twitter this week about how often Nadal was bending and stretching his back in practice—was there a flare-up? Maybe that’s why we heard that Uncle Toni was flying in to the rescue. Maybe that's why there worry over his ranking if he goes out early in Oz. Maybe that’s why a Rafa fan I play tennis with has started pinning all of his hopes on the French Open, as if his career is over everywhere else. Maybe that’s why, judging from news reports after the Doha defeat, it seemed that Nadal might pull the plug on the entire Aussie trip and head straight for South American dirt. There was certainly precedent: That’s how he made his last comeback, in 2013, and he ended up winning two majors and finishing No. 1.

But reading Nadal’s post-loss presser transcript from Doha made it clear that this wasn't his plan in 2015. In fact, he sounded the way he has always sounded in these situations. 

He was honest and specific about how he lost: “I think I play a great first set...but at the end I had a bad game in the third one, fourth one of the second set. He break me. After that everything changed. He played well. I was playing with more nerves than usual after—as I said before, after long time I wanted to win. I know that winning a couple of matches here will help me. So that makes me play a little bit more under more tension. Comebacks are tough; I’m not an exception.”

He was realistic—“usefully pessimistic” may be the better term—about his chances in Melbourne: “Now in my mind is practice well, try to be ready for Australia, but knowing that can happen that I gonna go to Australia and lose early. It is true if I’m able to find my rhythm, if I’m able to win a couple of matches there, then anything can happen. Can happen that I gonna arrive there I gonna lose early, I don’t know.”

The point Nadal is trying to make is that he’s thinking long term, of the year ahead rather than the Slam ahead, and that we should be thinking the same way. Looking back at the successful comebacks he’s already made, that’s the only way we can think. Rafa will be 29 this June; in the past, that may have meant he was nearing the end. But that’s no longer true in this new age of the aged. 

As for the short term, Nadal’s loss to Berrer reminded me of his loss to Horacio Zeballos in Viña del Mar two years ago. Like that match, this one came at his first tournament after a layoff. Like that match, it was against a lefty, and they can trouble him—last fall Rafa lost to two lower-ranked lefties, Martin Klizan and Feliciano Lopez. And like that match against Zeballos, his loss to Berrer looked as much mental as it did physical. In both cases, he wasn’t ready to get over his nerves and win the match at the end. Nadal’s game, at least for a set and a half, was there—Francisco Roig, his coach that day, said he was in some of the best form of his career. But remembering how to play is different, and easier, than remembering how to win. 

Nadal’s career history says that, yes, there will be more injuries, and he might be happy just to get out of Melbourne without another serious one. But his history also says something else: He’ll remember how to win, and do a lot of it, before he heads for the sidelines again.

*****

Novak Djokovic fans have no need to panic, do they? Anyone can lose to Ivo Karlovic; as Djokovic said afterward, when you face Dr. Ace, a single shot can make the difference between victory and defeat.

If we look back just 12 months, we’ll see how foolish it is to fear the worst about Nole. Last January, he lost at the Australian Open for the first time in four years; two months later, he still didn’t have a title, something that hadn’t happened to him since 2006, and speculation was rampant that his new coach, Boris Becker, would soon be his old coach. We know how that turned out. Djokovic went on to win seven titles, including Wimbledon, and finish No. 1 again. As with Rafa and all of the stars of this era, long term is the only term that matters for Djokovic. 

Yet there was a moment for concern in his loss to Karlovic. Testy for most of the day—understandably, considering the opponent—Djokovic finally threw the percentages to the wind in the third set and served and volleyed whenever he went down break point. After being broken on a brilliant Karlovic pass at 3-3, Djokovic pulled the ripcord in his next service game at 3-5. He rushed between points, came in behind spinning, mid-box serves, and looked, as commentator Frew McMillan put it, “riled” in general. As often happens when he does this, Djokovic won the game anyway, before losing the next one, and the match.

It was a small moment, but it was the kind that has gotten Djokovic in trouble in bigger matches in the past. He was more negative than necessary in his loss to Nadal in the French Open final last year, and he won the Wimbledon final the following month precisely because he didn’t pull the ripcord after he squandered the fourth set to Federer. As Djokovic said at the time, that win was special because it wasn't just a victory over his opponent, it was also a victory over himself. 

It looks like he'll be playing that match again in 2015.

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