The Curious Case of “Nervous” Nadal
By now, the story has been recirculated around the globe a couple thousand times, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players of this and many other generations, has stage fright. How can this be? How can a man who has won 14 Grand Slam titles suffer from a case of nerves at this stage in his career? Injuries and the questions they bring certainly have to be at the forefront of this affliction. Nadal has missed a combined ten months or so from Wimbledon 2012 through to the start of 2015. That came from a laundry list of problems from his back to his knees to his wrist and now seemingly to his brain. After a shock loss to Fernando Verdasco earlier this week in Miami, Nadal told reporters post-match “the thing is the question of being enough relaxed to play well on court.”
Rafa says his game has come a long way since the beginning of the year when he was rusty coming back from his back issues and appendicitis surgery at the end of 2014. He did manage to make the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, but looked anything but convincing in doing so. Nadal says he is still playing too nervy in too many important spots in matches.
Most telling in that post-match interview from Miami, Rafa said “I am a little bit on and off too much. That is something that didn’t happen in the past. In the past I have been able to change a lot of situations, negative situations, in my career and I want to do it again. I am confident that I can do it. I don’t know if I am going to do it but I hope I can.”
It sounds a lot like a man low on confidence at this stage in the season. Sure, he’s got a title to his credit from Buenos Aires, but outside of that his level of play has been erratic to say the least. Even some of his lopsided wins, it seems are more a product of his opponent being well off their game, more than Rafa being well on his game. In breaking down his game of late, his serve is one area where he seems to have reverted back to being very average again. He’s been unable to hit enough spots on-serve to make life easier going into rallies. Let’s face it, Rafa has never had the most stout serve in the world, but at his best he can mix speeds and spots to help serve as a catalyst to getting into good positions to start rallies. In 2015, while his service numbers themselves are good, it’s the timing of those “off” service games that have hurt him.
There is also the swarm of unforced errors coming off his racket at the wrong times. He had 32 against Verdasco in Miami. There were 22 last week in his loss to Milos Raonic in the Indian Wells quarterfinals. That’s not a ton for a three set match, but two of them came in the second set tie break when Rafa had three match points. Again, too many errors, too much “off” at critical moments in a match.
So where does Rafa go now? I think for one, he can take solace in the case of Roger Federer who developed a case of the “yips” during the 2013 season. It ended with no Grand Slam titles for Federer as well as hugely disappointing early outs at Wimbledon (2nd Round) and the U.S. Open (4th Round). Federer found his game with the help of a new coach in Stefan Edberg that ran him to an outstanding season at 73-12 in 2014. Yes, there were no Grand Slam titles for Federer, but he was in the mix and playing more “on” than “off” – something that has carried over more into 2015.
Am I suggesting a coaching change for Nadal? Surely not. Uncle Toni has led his nephew to the promised land more than he has not. Still, if things do not turn around for Nadal in the coming weeks as he gets onto his beloved clay, the chatter may heat up. You might hear things about including a “new voice” in his camp or something to that effect. The great ones know when things need to change. Roger Federer did it by bringing in Edberg. Novak Djokovic did it too with Becker. They were not afraid to change things up in the quest for more titles and I don’t think Nadal will be either if a solution is not found soon.
Getting back on clay should be a huge boost for him. No matter his struggles, Nadal knows how to get it done on dirt. Nine titles at Roland Garros; eight titles in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona as well as seven winning trips to Rome. All those tournaments are on the schedule over the next two months. If anything is going to get Rafa going in the right direction, this is as good a start as any. There will certainly be a lot of pressure on Nadal to perform at those tournaments. He must rebuild his confidence, reduce those moments of anxiety and a title or two wouldn’t hurt. It all leads up to his baby, the French Open.
I’ve said it many times to many different people, I truly believe that Rafael Nadal would destroy his body and soul for an entire season to win at Roland Garros every year until he hangs up his tennis shoes. I think it’s that important to him. 67-1 means expectation at Roland Garros. It also means that this curious case of anxiety that has enveloped his game in the past months needs to be solved in the next six weeks if he’s to add title #10. The first step on the road to recovery comes in Monte Carlo in a few weeks and all eyes will be on Rafa