When the story of this resplendent and unforgettable era of men’s tennis is written, the footsteps of Rafael Nadal will never stray that far from the footprints left by Roger Federer, and vice-versa. When this era is recalled 30, 50, or 75 years from now, any mention of one man will invariably bring the other to mind. That’s just the way it is, and it’s just the way it will be.
In the short term, Nadal lost another first-week Wimbledon match on Thursday. He fell to the jumpin’ Jamaican-German jammer, Dustin Brown, who played the best and most artistic guitar-solo tennis of his life. Brown’s 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory cuts short another Nadal visit to The All-England Club, reinforcing the idea that his days as a Wimbledon contender will be difficult to regain in the future.
However, for Nadal, the short term and Wimbledon are not the foremost points of concern. What this match has thrust in front of the 14-time major champion is the kind of challenge almost every elite tennis player has faced at some point… and which Federer had to stare down two years ago.
Indeed, the big-picture reality to emerge from “Brown d. Nadal” is that the Spaniard’s 2015 now feels a lot like Roger Federer’s 2013, despite the differences one could draw between those two seasons.
In 2013, it’s true that Federer was injured in the second half of the season (the middle of July and beyond), but it’s not as though he flourished in the first half of the year, either. Federer was blitzed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the French Open quarterfinals. Sergiy Stakhovsky served-and-volleyed Federer off the court in the second round of Wimbledon. Then came the miserable bouts with injury problems, creating a diminished player who crashed out of the U.S. Open fourth round against Tommy Robredo in a rather feeble display. After 36 straight major quarterfinal appearances, Federer failed to go that far in two straight majors. He looked old and felt old, subjected to the rigors of his sport and the wear and tear which is a fact of life as an athlete gets older.
Exiting that 2013 U.S. Open, everyone in the sport wondered if Federer had reached the point of no return. His prime years ceased to exist in 2010, but in 2011 and 2012, he was still one of the three best players on the planet. In 2013, though, it was reasonable to begin to wonder if that part of Federer’s career was over, giving way to a frail and painful “old-man” end to a glorious run of excellence.
While the storm clouds of that season felt like the end of the world for many Fed fans, the scenario was nevertheless delicious and supremely compelling as 2014 began:
Would an old and distinguished champion find the ability to respond to adversity, to summon his best tennis when so many critics were out in force, suggesting that he retire to preserve his legacy? Would an old soldier not only fight, but learn newer and more effective battle tactics, or would he fade into the mist and become little more than a walking memory of what once was, what had been… but no longer persisted?
It is one of the greatest and most gripping dramas in sport: How old champions confront the reality of diminishment as they age. It’s not so much the emergence of more failures which forms the central tension point in these situations; it’s that failures mount as a result of biology, not the internal understanding of how to play the game. The aging champion knows exactly what he needs to do — in this sense, the mind becomes sharper than ever — but as the body becomes weaker, the mind can’t help the body to do what it must in order to continue to succeed, to continue to hold off the younger wolves in vigorous competition.
The aging champion doesn’t understand less; the forces of time simply erode the supplies of stamina, freshness, agility, and the other tools which were so masterfully combined in the days of milk and honey, when titles flowed freely and sunshine blanketed the landscape.
This is what Roger Federer faced as he flew out of New York in September of 2013. It’s what Rafael Nadal faces now as he leaves suburban London in July of 2015.
Federer, as we can see, has regained his place as a top player — not THE best, and not transcendent in the way he once was, but still very much one of the elites. The 2013 season of dark skies and tidal waves of doubts washing over his mind has come and gone. Federer has not conquered tennis, but he has not allowed it to conquer him, and that’s quite a victory in the larger scheme of things.
Now comes Nadal’s attempt to do the same.
A wrist injury kept him out of last year’s U.S. Open, and then a bout of appendicitis sidelined him for the ATP World Tour Finals. In Melbourne at the Australian Open, it was plain for all to see that Nadal was a physically diminished player. He fought his way into the quarterfinals — his belief was not flagging at the time — but the ability to dance around the court and put a lot of weight behind his topspin forehand just didn’t emerge, at least not for sustained periods. Tomas Berdych, who had lost 17 straight matches to Nadal, beat him in straight sets. A fully fit and wholly energized Nadal never would have allowed that to happen.
The discussions that developed in tennis circles at the time were not marked by panic, though. Rafa would settle into the season, find his sea legs on European clay, and make everything all right.
Well, except he didn’t.
Losing to an in-form Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros was not the alarm-bell match for Nadal during his claycourt season. That distinction belongs either to his Barcelona loss to Fabio Fognini or his Madrid stumble to Andy Murray.
The loss to Fognini in Barcelona was more discouraging than his loss to the Italian in Rio because it was later in the season and a revenge match. Any previous incarnation of Rafa would not lose revenge matches on clay, so when Fognini got him a second time in as many meetings, it showed something was amiss.
When Nadal failed to make routine forehands against Murray in Madrid, the importance of the moment lay in the fact that — unlike the Berdych quarterfinal in Australia, when Nadal looked weak more than anything else — Rafa was failing to execute. Nadal could no longer trust the idea that he just needed to find a physical comfort zone. He surely realized on that evening in his home country that for whatever reason, mind-body dualism was continuing to elude him.
Nadal chased that dualism — the moment of zen when everything falls into place for an athlete — in Rome and Paris, but no dice. He had an extra week to prepare for Wimbledon, due to the lengthening of the grass season, and when he won the Stuttgart 250 event, he had reason to think he’d turned the corner… or could at least begin to see the turn. However, he lost early at the Queen’s Club 500 event to Alexandr Dolgopolov, immediately squelching any notion that his mind had been set at ease. This loss to Dustin Brown at Wimbledon merely confirms what we’ve seen for the past few months.
It’s very clear now, albeit with the benefit of hindsight: Nadal has not been able to make various course corrections since Melbourne. Far from improving and using that loss to Berdych as a stepping stone, Nadal has regressed. The situation isn’t as obvious as Federer’s was in 2013 (an injury needed to be recovered from), but the same general state of anxiety — for the player, the coach, and the fan base — remains.
We’re now brought to the big question again, only with a more specific focus: How does Rafa respond to everything that’s crashing down around him?
Should he change his coaching staff? Should he play smaller tournaments to give himself match play and confidence? These are valid questions, but they must be approached with one point firmly in mind: Nadal — who has recuperated from past injuries and past disruptions of his career to come back better than ever (consider his sensational 2013 season after a seven-month injury layoff, winning Roland Garros and then Canada-Cincinnati-U.S. Open in succession) — is now 29.
Nadal and his team must realize that what might have worked at age 27 might not work now. It could, but the calculus is more complicated.
Nadal has thrived on gaining match play to build up confidence, but one must also remember that Nadal started to win at a high rate on tour before he turned 20. He began to put a lot of miles on his tennis tires at an earlier age, since winning more matches means more activity and more strain. Federer, as a point of contrast, didn’t really put all the pieces together in his career until he had turned 22. This is an important reason why Federer looks relatively fresh, one month before turning 34, and has been able to move past the pitch-black outlook of September 2013 in New York.
It is the great trade-off in the Federer-Nadal discussion, if you stop to think about it: Nadal is the player you’d much rather have on your side if you needed one man to play for your life or your liberation from a dictator’s prison, because Nadal — at his best — is the greatest fighter in the history of the sport. You’d rather have the supreme warrior than the ultimate magician in your corner, unless the magician’s powers could never be thwarted. Nadal, though, was and is the player born to thwart Federer’s aspirations, and given the 23-10 head-to-head record between the two, you could make the claim — quite convincingly — that when on the court and fully fit, Nadal has maxed out in his career more than Federer has.
Yet, here’s the trade-off: Nadal’s ability to maximize his career results — in general, but also in direct combat with Federer — has come at a physical cost. Nadal’s total sacrifice of his body, the all-out nature with which he plays in an era when the unforgiving surface of hardcourts is most prominent and prevalent in tennis, has pounded his knees and his joints and his wrist. What Nadal has gained in battle with Federer, he has lost in terms of overall longevity and his ability to play every single major tournament with a supremely good chance to win.
It should not be lost on anyone that Federer, at this Wimbledon tournament, has set an ATP record with a 63rd straight appearance in a major tournament. That Federer has not missed a major throughout the 21st century is a testament to his great and good fortune, but also to a playing style which has undeniably treated him well, giving him the resilience to overcome the injuries that have been thrown his way. One should never, ever regret giving it his all, but Nadal’s all-heart approach to tennis has nevertheless incurred some expenditures along the way.
Nadal’s big choice at this point in his career is not about his coach or even his schedule. What must come first is a thought-out examination of how he can play winning tennis at age 30 and beyond.
Federer’s reinvention was to finally commit to a bigger racquet, supplemented by a desire to be more proactive in the attempt to shorten points at net. You can play a lot of matches, but if you can win them while playing short points, you can keep the odometer down, and this is something Federer has realized.
Nadal — who showed at the 2010 U.S. Open that he can hit flat groundstrokes and punishing serves — won’t ever again reclaim his 2010 form. That was his best season of all time, one of the great single-athlete years in tennis history. However, Nadal is a problem-solver. He’s been one throughout his career. If he can find ways to marshal his resources — using his stamina when he needs to but trying to assert himself when the opportunity presents itself — he can strike a balance between winning in the way that’s natural for him and winning in the way that will become more necessary for him as he ages.
Finding that middle-ground plan is really what Nadal must do with Uncle Toni and his team. The scheduling decisions and other considerations will flow from that.
We’ll just have to wait and see what decisions and responses Rafael Nadal makes. Roger Federer and his fans know the pain Nadal and his fans are going through today, but the Swiss’s example does show that great champions can and do come up with great answers.
Roger in 2013.
Rafa in 2015.
A new chapter in the story of the greatest era of men’s tennis is about to unfold. There are no guarantees of a happy resurgence kissed by autumn sunshine for Rafael Nadal Parera, but he’s going to give everything he can to make it happen.
We are privileged to get a chance to watch.