In his latest column Steve Tignor asks, “Can Rafa regain his No. 1 form?”
He starts the article talking about when Rafa was at his top form: the 08 Wimbledon final which he happened to catch by accident over the holidays.
Seeing them again made me think two things. (1) Any idea that this match ended up as a crapshoot in the dark, that it was little more than good fortune that elevated Nadal over Federer that day, is nonsense. At the end, late in the fifth set, he was both the gutsier and the smarter player. (2) Nadal is, more than any other Hall of Fame player I’ve seen, a creature of confidence.
Indeed. In that match, he was 100% confident that he could and was going to win. The end of last year? I don’t think he was sure he could win a game, much less a match, much less a final of such importance.
But confidence means even more to Nadal than it does to just about everyone else. Even his resourcefulness, his on-court intelligence and thinking process, are dependent on it. By the end of 2009, when Nadal had no belief in himself whatsoever, it wasn’t just that he’d stopped hitting the ball well. What was strange was that he wasn’t using all of his mental and strategic resources to try to turn matches around. At the final event in London, where he lost six straight sets, Nadal did little more than get to the ball and hit it back over the net. Like I said, it’s hard to think of other players of his stature whose level—whose belief, mood, even the effectiveness of his signature shots—varies so wildly.
An interesting thought and, I think, clearly puts into words what a lot of us were saying at the end of last year.
Maybe, on second thought, Nadal isn’t unique for his varying levels of confidence, but for how consistently he varies from year to year—he always goes up, he always goes down, and then, just when you wonder whether his psyche or knees are permanently fried, he always goes up again. Before 2009, Nadal’s hot streak usually started with the clay-court season, or just before it at Indian Wells, and sustained him until the dog days and hard courts of summer in North America. Last year, it started earlier, in Australia in January, but lasted about the same amount of time, until the end of May in Paris.
I have to disagree with this a bit – I think the confidence died before the end of May – or at the very least went on life-support during the Miami tournament.
Has Rafa shown any signs of his old form this week, in his two early round wins in Doha? I caught about a set of his match against Simone Bollelli, and I thought he looked OK. He stepped around a few forehands, but not as many as he does when he’s feeling good. He hit a few backhand winners, but he also hit some so poorly that he was doing shadow backhand swings after missing them, telling himself to extend through the stroke more. He was spending most of his time well behind the baseline. Overall, he seemed to be closer to late 2009 form than prime 2008 form (the orange shirt doesn’t help, either), though he showed much more determination than he did in London. After his long, involuntary mid-season ’09 break, he didn’t want to take any more time off at the end of the year. You could see against Bollelli that Nadal wants to work his way out of this slump.
And I agree – the difference in the Davis Cup and this early part of the season has seemed to be the will to improve and stick around in the match for as long as it takes things to start clicking.
We can’t know the future, but if we take the past as a guide—what else can we do?—we can only say that Nadal will reach his best form sometime in 2009, and that he’ll stand at the center of at least one Grand Slam winner’s circle. He’s been there in each of the last four seasons, a period of time in which he’s never fallen out of the Top 3. He owns winning records against virtually every player of consequence. And there are question marks surrounding the other guys near him in the rankings: Can Djokovic keep it together for two full weeks? Can Murray become more proactive? What’s Federer’s motivation now? Is del Potro ready to shoulder the expectations?
I can live with this prediction. :)
Nadal’s 2010 will depend on one long-term element and one short-term element. The long-term issue will be his knees; he’s playing a similar schedule to last season, when they betrayed him halfway into the year. The short term issue will be his ability to find that match, that moment, that shot, that tournament, the one which will allow him to find his old confidence, his old aggressiveness, and his old resourcefulness and become temporarily unbeatable again.
Let’s hope that match happens soon and with long-lasting effects.
In the meantime, tennis fans can enjoy watching him search for that moment. Nadal’s ups and downs make him, more than most other players, worth watching for the journey as much as for the end result. Where Federer, the ultimate in consistent excellence, barely lets us see him sweat, Nadal takes us for a ride with him as he plays—sometimes it’s scary, other times it’s exhilarating. The guy has the gift of transparency; few, if any, current players photograph as vividly on court. In his walk, in his face, in his eyebrows, even in his backhand, he can’t hide how he’s feeling. I’ll predict just one thing about Rafa in 2010: He’ll be a player to watch.
And we’ll definitely be watching.