In my recent article entitled “How Roger can Rule the Tennis World Again,” I proclaimed that the 2008 Wimbledon final was the turning point of Roger Federer’s career. In the years following the 2008 Wimbledon final, the renowned Swiss legend would add four major titles to his resume, in stark contrast to Rafael Nadal’s nine grand slams over the same period. However, my article doesn’t elaborate on a critical point: When the two competitors shook hands in the aftermath of that July marathon, Rafa inherited his role as the official alpha-male of the tennis world. Just as Roger effortlessly disposed of the opposition from 2004 to 2007, the muscular Spaniard would steamroll to victory from 2008 to 2013.
Now, hold on a second. That last statement needs to be analyzed a bit more closely. After earning his first Wimbledon title, Rafa would place fourth in the 2009 French Open, fall in the quarterfinals of the 2010 and 2011 Australian Open, and exit before the third round in both the 2012 and 2013 Wimbledon Championships. He would fail to appear in four majors, battling severe tendinitis in his knees, and fall short against Stan Wawrinka in the 2014 Australian Open final on account of now-infamous back spasms. Anyone familiar with Rafa’s career will tell you that his scrappy style of play is better tailored to epic battles—and unsurprisingly, his most memorable moments have been five-set marathons.
For those puzzled by the topspin-heavy Spaniard’s recent decline, take comfort in knowing that you have plenty of company. For the purposes of this article, we can operationalize Nadal’s decline as occurring after his victory at the 2014 French Open. How could a player as dominant as Rafa fail to make the semifinals of any major during the 2015 ATP season? A born-fighter with 14 major titles doesn’t just disappear overnight, right?
He doesn’t. And that’s exactly what we should take away from Rafa’s heart-wrenching decline. Elite players experience a gradual downfall as opposed to an instantaneous spiral. We can reference Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, and Roger Federer as other prominent examples. If we analyze Nadal’s play in his major championship victories, and compare those performances to his recent struggles—the cold, hard reality emerges that Rafa has lost his killer instinct. Additionally, his overwhelmingly physical style of play, responsible for so much of his success, may ultimately prove to be his greatest limitation over the coming years.
During his reign of supremacy, Rafa dictated points
When Nadal defeated Novak Djokovic in the 2013 U.S. Open, the scrappy Spaniard employed his typical brand of stellar defensive tennis. However, the key to victory was pushing Novak all over the court, as Djokovic lamented in his post-match remarks, “Credit to my opponent. He was making me run.” Similarly, when Nadal secured his eighth major victory at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships, he converted 77 percent of his first-serve points, and hit 29 winners to Tomas Berdych’s 27. Offensive prowess is a prerequisite for success in tennis, as Rafa demonstrated in his dismantling of Federer during the 2008 French Open final. If Rafa manages to win his 15th major championship, it’ll be accomplished through hard-fought defense and a relentless stream of blistering forehands and serves.
Rafa’s decline: A story of limited winners and second-service points won
Tomas Berdych does not have a flattering head-to-head record against Rafael Nadal. And yet, during the 2015 Australian Open quarterfinal, Berdych converted 46 winners to Nadal’s 24 untouched groundstrokes. Even more alarming, the 2009 Australian Open champion only won 29 percent of his second-serve points. This trend continued into the 2015 French Open, where Nadal managed only 16 winners and 38 percent of his second-service points won. Wimbledon was no different, albeit the frequency of winners was a bit better: 42 winners, but only 46 percent of his second-serve points.
When Rafa lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round of the 2012 Wimbledon championships, it stunned the tennis community. Nadal was legitimately outplayed by his Czech opponent, but he played a great match—41 winners and 63 percent of second-serve points won. What does this performance tell us in comparison to Nadal’s abysmal exit at the 2015 U.S. Open (only 30 winners and 37 percent of second serves won)?
The answer: The superstar chasing Roger Federer’s 17 grand slams no longer plays with the same offensive firepower. The defense will always be a hallmark of his game, but he’s become a purely one dimensional player. He’ll need to find a way to boost his second serve and consistently force his opponents to the sides of the court.
Make no mistake about it, Rafael Nadal is one of the best to ever play the sport of tennis. His accomplishments at Roland-Garros alone merit a special place in tennis history. However, we’re watching a legend decline before our eyes. It’s entirely possible that the tennis world watched Rafa unwittingly pass the torch to Djokovic at the 2015 French Open quarterfinals.