RafaLint: September 5th

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Well, it’s the day after a tough loss. I always feel a bit better with a little distance and reading/watching Rafa’s presser often helps. I feel the need to ramble a bit – feel free to skip my random musings and go straight to the lint.

Like a lot of people, I do think something broke a little inside Rafa in the 2014 AO final. Not just physically with the back injury, but mentally/emotionally. Since then, his battle with nerves has become more and more difficult.

I’ve always felt like Rafa was a very nervous player. He just dealt with his nerves and hid them from the public by building layers of armor between his game and the nerves. The very top layer of the armor was that intense match face – the one that made me think he was a grim and arrogant person the very first time I saw him play. That mask wasn’t arrogance, though, it was the opposite. It was his protection from doubts, nerves and anxieties. It seems that those outer and inner masks are’t working anymore. I can’t help but wonder if that back injury in the 2014 AO final put a chink in some layer of that armor that he hasn’t been able to track down and repair yet. He went into that final with such self-assurance and his goal of winning every major twice seemed very much within his reach. To lose that opportunity while staying out there and giving it all he had even when physically hampered… I don’t know. He just hasn’t felt the same since. Yes, he managed to win Roland Garros, but that victory felt shakier than usual to me. I also think the further physical issues later in the year added to the mental issues. They were more opportunities lost. Every opportunity lost adds more pressure to the next opportunity you have.

A lot of people seem to be saying his problems must be physical since he’s not as fast as he was. I’ve heard player after player say they move slower when nervous. Tennis players have to make so many decisions every second, the more that you can make and trust without thinking, the faster they are going to be made; the faster the decision is made, the quicker you can act upon it. When you are nervous and/or full of doubts, you tend to not trust those gut decisions. That nano-second of doubt, of second guessing your instinct can mean you are not to the ball in time to redirect it and thus, have to hit directly back at your opponent. (This happened a lot in last night’s match. When Rafa did try to redirect the ball, it went well out because he was late to it.) Mental performance affects physical performance. It’s as simple as that.

So many people are ragging on Rafa for not coming back like he did in 2013. Physical issues are a breeze to deal with compared to mental/emotional ones. They are concrete. You can pinpoint them. There are prescribed treatments. It’s easy to measure your progress. Mental/emotional issues are the exact opposite. They take time.

A few years ago, I remember watching a US Open match between Rafa and Murray. It was an intense match. You could tell both of them were feeling the pressure. I tweeted that Andy wanted the win so badly, it was pulling him down; Rafa wanted it so badly, it was lifting him up. Lately, the wanting has been pulling Rafa down more than lifting him up. I hope he can find that lift again. I’m also hoping that he takes positives from this loss much like he did from the 2011 US Open loss to Djokovic. He said the set he won in that match was a turning point as it helped him realize he could beat Djokovic. I’m hoping the fact that he fought in this match to the very end, that, as he said, “my mind allows me to fight until the end” will help him realize he can continue to do that. He can fight. And the fight can lift him up.

(Also: he’s still in the top 10. I’m more than a bit tired of people calling that a “horrific” season.)

Enough of my ramblings. After all, Maria Sharapova’s reply to this tweet from the USO pretty much sums up my feelings:




Rafa does social media:

Rafa’s brand ambassador duties start early in the day.

Ready for Game3! @UsOpen

A photo posted by Rafa Nadal (@rafaelnadal) on

Social media related to Rafa:

Other stuff:

11 Responses

  1. JayDee50 says:

    Reading your words, Miri, confirms what I’ve thought for a while: you and I are on exactly the same wavelength regarding Rafa. I’ve felt that since the AO 14 Final that something changed within him; he hasn’t been the same player at all. Oh yes, he has competed well, given his all, tried his best etc etc but something is missing. Further on in the year, how bitterly disappointed must he have been to suffer that wrist injury, then having fixed that, to be struck down with appendicitis, prematurely ending his season. There were all those points he was unable to defend, some 6000 or so I think the tally was, from Montreal, Cincy, the USO, Shanghai, Paris and the WTFs, the result of having such a fantastic 2013 season. It all must have taken a huge toll; he knew his ranking would drop by being unable to defend those points, hence his desire to plan the appendix surgery at such time as to allow him to return to the tour at the earliest opportunity this year, knowing he had Finals points to defend at this year’s AO. In hindsight, I firmly believe he returned to the tour far too early after that surgery, I mean, November 3rd he was under the knife, by January back on tour in Doha. Far too tight a timeframe for even the most fit of players. Was it any wonder he struggled through that 2nd round match with Tim Smyczek? The heat, the humidity, the physical nature of his tennis all taking their toll on a body still recovering from surgery.

    I just can’t imagine the mental struggle he must have been having with himself; wanting to be back on tour, wanting to defend the points, yet knowing probably that he should have given himself further recuperation time.

    He knows all this, yet he never brings it up in interviews, probably thinking that it sounds like an excuse. Instead, he credits his opponents for playing better than he. The media pay very little attention to it, choosing to report the facts as they are without the benefit of the bigger picture to put the facts into context. Yes, he’s had a bad year, bad by his standards but certainly not horrific. But blaring headlines sell news. That’s the media’s way.

    I really really hope that Rafa can fix all the issues he’s dealing with. He’s a strong person, mentally, one of the strongest, always looking at and taking the positives. That’s what he inspires me to do, too.

    • bea says:

      I agree with every single word. That’s exactly what I have thought. Including his premature return to play. Don’t even let me start about the media…

  2. Lizipsa says:

    Thanks for your ‘ramblings’ Miri. You sum it up perfectly. We should all remain positive even when we are gutted for Rafa. And thanks for your tireless reports.

  3. bea says:

    Thank you, Miri, for your ‘ramblings’ :) That’s what I have thought for a long time. Never forget AO 2014 final. I’ve never cried so hard during a tennis match. It was not about win or loss. It was hard to see him suffering so much. We can only imagine what it was like for him. How much emotional (and physical) pain can one person take? Hope his armour is not damaged beyond repair. Deep inside I still believe Rafael is stronger then his fears. He just needs more time. I’m afraid that surgery takes its toll as well. Maybe it’s ‘only’ laparoscopy and he is professional athlete but the length of time for a complete recovery is difficult to predict. The endurence is very important part of the game. There are moments, during the matches, when it seems that part of him is not there… He gets tired easier. Yes, I was surprised that he lost after leading by two sets. But on the other hand I had a feeling this would happen. During the court interview after his first match (against Borna) he seemed subdued (sad? tired?). I felt something is wrong. That early exit is painful but maybe his body and mind need relaxation more then another practice or match. I hope he really believes what he said in the presser (though his body language gives away his true feelings… that loss hurts him more then he chooses to show). He has nothing to prove to anybody but I wish he were happy. I want to see smile on his face. We can’t do anything but believe in him. It is a process (maybe long, step by step, day by day). I’m trying to be patient, to read between the lines… to send him good thoughts. Vamos, Rafa!

  4. CC says:

    “Mental performance affects physical performance. It’s as simple as that.” Yes, but then one can also say that physical performance affects mental performance, so…I dunno. I don’t think Rafa’s anxiety/nervousness plays as great a role in his career as this suggests. Not for someone with his winning mentality. Not this late in his more than fantastic careera.
    Rafa has 29 years. Maybe he needs to move out from mum and dad, get married and have babies.

  5. dhartk says:

    I agree about this general assessment, as well. If you read Rafa’s biography (I’m a librarian!), he talks about “putting on his armor.” I’ve always thought of it as a Superman/Clark Kent thing. When his body let him down in such a crucial match, then the wrist and appendicitis…He shouldn’t have been playing, and came back too soon. The fallibility keeps him in “Clark Kent” mode. When he hits the ball and it doesn’t do what it’s done for 10 years…
    I also had a feeling watching him in NY that he is so intent on getting back to where he was for so long that he was practicing in the humidity for 2 and 3 hard hours. He’s not 22. That will zap your strength by midnight. Look at what happened to the only other player on tour that they have to wipe up the sweat off the court – he needed to be wheeled off court (though refusing). He had also played the night before.
    I have a daughter who’s type 1 diabetes who played soccer/ran track, often with games, meets, practices on same day. She almost went beyond functioning, and she was 16 at the time. Dehydration happens after so many hours and the body needs to recover, though our amazons want to be invincible.
    I believe that he felt good about his efforts, but unlucky. Let’s support him as he keeps working. For those who want to decide he should retire or get married – well I guess you’re entitled to your (silly?) opinions, certainly.

  6. Merrill says:

    miri you definitely speak my mind. I do not think that the current dynamic of Rafa’s team is helping Rafa with the mental issues, and I wish he would consider a trial part-time consultant to bring some fresh thinking into the mix. Perhaps this time in the comparative “wilderness” of eighth place (eye roll) will strengthen his focus and confidence in the long run.

  7. ChF says:

    Totally agree with you miri. My coach says physical problems create mental ones, but I disagree. Certainly the fact that he’s getting older isn’t helping, but I’m afraid the AO2014 final and what ensued were the straw that broke the camel’s back mentally for Rafa. Being healthy for so long for the first time should have put wings in his legs and instead he now has to fight mental issues which are the very thing he didn’t have all his career. Also the fact that he keeps losing matches he shouldn’t be losing is a serious blow to him, even if he doesn’t say it in public.

  8. Francine says:

    Thanks for writing this piece Miri, and as others I totally agree with your assessment. I have thought about this since this heartbreaking AO 2014.

    At this point, he must stay healthy as he promised himself to be at the Rio’s Olympics …
    Thanks again Miri

  9. Aero says:

    I’m not totally disagreeing with the start point for Rafa’s issues, but the problem I have with using the AO as an absolute marker for his decline is the fact that he won the FO and convincingly so against Djokovic, the player many expected would take it from him that year. However, perhaps he was beginning to waver due to other clay losses to those he normally beat. I think is was an accumulation of losses to lesser and later to much younger inexperienced ones that began a rapid turning point which was then exaggerated by injury and a long layoff period again. While mental/emotional state does affect physicality, I do feel his physicality has changed, he has weakened and his intensity has declined. Could it be that all the abuse on his body is beginning to take its toll?

    The moments of brilliance he still exhibits in matches are simply ones he can no longer sustain. He was always favored over a 5 set match due to his stamina and his ability to grind opponents down to the point of exhaustion. However, against Fognini it looked quite the opposite. Rafa’s forehand in the 5th set wasn’t just off but had absolutely no power behind it, it was pitiful, he was barely using it to keep the ball in play while Fognini was still ripping winners in the 5th set. Rafa looks like he has aged 10 years in the last 10 months. My worry is that based on the last presser, Rafa still thinks he is playing well and that he didn’t loose that match but that Fognini won it. I beg to differ, Fognini only won because Rafa allowed him to get into his head again and Fognini could sense that! Others think he needs new blood on his team, I would also suggest a sports psychologist. Anderson just said in his presser after beating Murray that he uses one which has helped him! If all else has fails then nothing ventured is nothing gained!

  10. harry houdini says:

    I like a lot of what you are saying. Rafa’s always had some nerves in his comebacks, 2010 AO match vs. murray is a good example. His presser was great to read and your analogy to the 2013 USO was perfect. Rafa said much the same thing as he is saying now after the 2012 AO final loss and he totally backed up what he said with his performances at the 2012 FO and then the amazing 2013 year. I am sure the pessimistic types were calling for nadal’s end after the 2011 USO and 2012 AO losses, just like they are doing now. I am sure that painful tune has not changed.

    Imo one of the problems this year is that he just hasn’t been able to build up endurance through match play. His performances prior to the AO and during the AO this year were clear evidence that he wasn’t match fit. But unlike 2013 rafa just hasn’t won enough to become match fit this year and he only looks to have finally gotten there now. I don’t agree with him that he is as fast as in his younger days, but maybe some of that is coming back too. If federer can refresh in the last few months and move better than a year ago, rafa can also regain some wheels from a down period.

    I couldn’t watch the fognini match, but the stats. say rafa was serving at a very high level during the match. He was serving bigger than fognini and averaged 116, 114, 113, 117, 117, 102 over the two boxes. That’s a huge improvement over the earlier part of the year and the fall hc season; he still managed to retain his high 1st serve %, which was great to see.

    Overall I agree with him that he is improving throughout the year and while he may never reach no. 1 again, I expect he will keep improving over current form and keep playing for several more years. i am also really eager to see rafa play some high level matches against the next set of opponents, including tiafoe, rublev, chung and a few other juniors coming up. Tennis is going to get really exciting again in the next 2-3 years and it’s going to be awesome to see rafa in that mix.