Is there a way to be confidently un-confident?
That’s the question hovering over the head of Rafael Nadal as the European clay-court season begins. For most players, it will be a long and leisurely journey to the grand finale in Paris. For the five-time defending French Open champion, it may also be a perilous adventure.
All eyes will be on Nadal in the weeks to come as he struggles with a double-barreled problem. First, the anxiety that has haunted him thus far this year, persistent and well-hidden as a pebble in his shoe. And then there’s Novak Djokovic, the ultra-dedicated player who has just vaulted Nadal on the list of legendary players who have spent the greatest number of weeks ranked No. 1 on the ATP computer.
Small wonder that Nadal has been, well, anxious.
The Spaniard was upset in the fourth round of Wimbledon last year by rising Australian star Nick Kyrgios. A wrist injury kept him off the court for the ensuing three months, and when he returned he developed appendicitis. He floundered through the remainder of 2014, winning a grand total of four matches in the three tournaments he played after Wimbledon.
Nadal seemed primed to make a comeback this year, but he’s taken painful, unexpected losses—the most recent inflicted by Fernando Verdasco in the third round of the Miami Masters. Verdasco had lost 13 consecutive losses to Nadal, dating back to their first meeting in 2005, but now has two consecutive wins over Rafa, both in boldface Masters 1000 events. After that loss, Nadal was sanguine about the state of his game, if not the condition of his nerves.
“It's not the question of tennis,” he insisted. “The thing is the question of being enough relaxed to play well on court. . . One month ago, or one month and a half ago, didn't have the game. Today my game in general improved since a month and a half. But at the same time, (I’m) still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing with a little bit of anxious on that moments.”
Nadal is nothing if not realistic, and his humility is so striking that anyone predisposed to harbor a grudge against him tends to interpret his sincerity as feigned. If it is, Nadal is a better actor than he is a clay-court player, and that’s just to out there to even consider. Besides, Nadal’s humility is such that it may even snowball into an advantage as the season rolls on, or at least jump-start his rehabilitation. By embracing his problems, Nadal is off to a flying start on a solution. The rewards of true humility are seldom cataloged because it would be, well, un-humble to tout them.
Nadal has said that during his career, he’s been able to control his emotions during a match something like 90, 95 percent of the time. He’s had trouble hitting that number thus far this year, and admitted that “It is being tougher to be under self-control.”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he added, “But I gonna fix it. I don't know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I gonna do it.”
Those don’t sound like the words of a beaten or deeply confused man. They sound like the tennis player’s equivalent of General Douglas MacArthur’s famous prediction to the people of the Philippines when he was driven out by the Japanese army. “I shall return,” he promised.
MacArthur was good for his words. Will Nadal be as well?
The odds are good, but we ought to keep a few things in mind as we await his move. For one thing, Nadal generally gets back to 95 percent relatively quickly; that golden last five percent tends to take quite a bit longer. Just look at 2009, the year his aching, tendinitis-plagued knees prevented Nadal from defending his Wimbledon title.
Nadal took about 10 weeks off after Robin Soderling, in one of the all-time upsets, knocked him out in the fourth round of the French Open. In four of his next five tournaments, he lost in the semifinals; the other defeat came in a final. In those, he lost to quality players in Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, but he also lost to a still-developing Marin Cilic and Nikolay Davydenko. At the U.S. Open, Nadal dealt with an abdominal muscle issue, but the injury factor is impossible to assess.
At the start of 2010, Nadal took a quarterfinal loss in the Australian Open, leading to increased rumors of his demise. But he went on to have a career year, winning the remaining three majors to complete the career Slam.
Nadal was also out for an extended period in 2012. He missed the entire second half with a bad left knee after absorbing a second-round loss to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon. Nadal recovered from that setback more effectively, winning three straight tournaments after coming up short to Horacio Zeballas in his first outing back at Vina del Mar.
One thing about Nadal today: He has a deep fund of experience when it comes to making comebacks. His grip on the tiller of career is much firmer than the one momentarily on the handle of his racquet.
“For me, the most important is the mental part, because I don't think I forgot how to play tennis,” he told reporters shortly before the start of Monte Carlo. “From playing bad to playing well, there is not a very big difference. It's just small things that make big changes. If I'm well mentally, if I can play with a little bit more confidence, it will be easier to hit better shots.”
Those better shots began to flow from Nadal’s racquet in his first match on red clay this year. The relief he felt after putting the hammer down on French wild card Lucas Pouille was almost palpable. “I will go back to the hotel with [a] fantastic feeling, because I played probably the best match of the year for me,” Nadal told the press. “I played with the right mentality [and] the right concentration.”
Given how swiftly we forget recent history, it’s also instructive to review Nadal’s spring just a year ago. After losing the Miami final to Djokovic, Nadal was beaten in back-to-back quarterfinals at Monte Carlo and Barcelona by, respectively, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro. He took the Madrid Masters title when Kei Nishikori had to retire, mid-match, and then lost to Djokovic in the Rome Masters.
But Nadal killed that latest version of the “What’s Wrong With Rafa?” narrative with a win over Djokovic when it mattered most, in the French Open final. It was a triumph made all the hand-wringing seem for naught, and all was well in Nadalville. But to get a good handle on Nadal’s situation, just imagine what the buzz might have been like last June had he lost that Roland Garros final to Djokovic.
That, of course, is the second barrel of Nadal’s current dilemma: Djokovic won’t get off his tail. The guy keeps hounding him. He seems determined to win the French Open, but what that really means is that he’s dead set on stripping Nadal of the one thing he can count on, the still point around which his entire world turns. Nadal himself may not fully comprehend how much having that home base of Roland Garros really means to him, which is why it seems so important that Nadal get his game together this spring. The way Djokovic is playing, he’s not going to take “no” for an answer again—at least not without asking every question in the book.
Tennis is a game brimming with opportunities for redemption. There’s a fresh start nearly every week, and Nadal has taken advantage of that a number of times thanks to his proficiency on clay. It looks and sounds as if he’s bent on doing it again.
Djokovic looms on his horizon, growing larger by the minute, but this isn’t a good time to be distracted by that. Nadal can only solve his problems one barrel at a time.