Rafael Nadal’s early success at the 2016 Olympic Games has left the Spanish superstar depleted and broken down following an embarrassing 6-1, 6-3 defeat to talented teenager Borna Coric in the third round at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open.
With Father Time beating away at Nadal’s body, the 14-time major winner hardly looks like the No. 5-ranked player in the world. The biggest question is if he can recuperate physically and mentally to be a factor at the U.S. Open.
What does the 30-year-old need to contend in the year’s final major that begins before August fades away? Does he have enough left to play great tennis through two grinding weeks?
Never mind that Nadal was trailing 6-1, 4-0 before rallying to lose the second set 6-3, those who watched the match could see a clear difference in movement and energy.
While Coric raced to set up nearly every ball, Nadal could scarcely cover the corners. By the end of the match, the Croatian produced 18 winners, the Spaniard nine. Coric had 11 unforced errors, Nadal 29. And the former world No. 1 won only 13 percent of his second serves.
Tennis TV summarized the ugly box score:
Tennis TV @TennisTV
The numbers from that Coric-Nadal R3 @CincyTennis meet. #ATP https://t.co/XdjPX861kG2016-8-18 19:47:52
The Spaniard used to outrun everyone on tour, and his legs were often the difference in tracking down Roger Federer’s offensive array a decade ago when they vied for supremacy in seemingly every major.
While it’s true that Nadal is coming off a severe wrist injury, his Olympic workload of playing 11 combined singles and doubles matches in one week was too much to bounce back with a strong run in Cincinnati.
Over the weekend, he was overpowered by Juan Martin del Potro in the Olympic semifinals and outhustled by Kei Nishikori in the bronze-medal match.
After flying to the upper United States, Nadal was playing on fumes to get by Pablo Cuevas before Coric ran circles around him with an impressive display of penetrating groundstrokes on both sides of the court. Even on returns of serve, the Spanish star was practically standing in Kentucky against fairly average ATP serves.
"Too tired," Nadal said, per the Associated Press (h/t the New York Times). "Elbow, shoulder. Two-and-a-half months without competing and especially without practicing, and to do what I did in the Olympics and come here—too much."
So credit another promising performance by Coric who was motivated to take on an aging legend (Coric has now defeated Nadal in two of three career meetings since late 2014.).
Most of all, Nadal was a shell of himself, slow to move, eyes overcast and unable to summon up the power and spin that swept the U.S. Open series in 2013. Will he turn it around by August 29?
U.S. Open Outlook
Nadal is a two-time champion of the U.S. Open (2010, 2013) during two of the greatest three periods of his career.
Renowned most as the “King of Clay,” the faster hard-court surface at the U.S. Open neutralizes some of his abilities to grind and play bigger hops to his opponents. He must go through bigger servers and power players. He needs to be in the proverbial zone with his legs, serving, forehand and timing.
Right now, Nadal is nowhere near his former level in those areas, so it’s going to take the perfect storm to get through perhaps the deepest draw of all the majors.
Despite the matchups and infusion of youthful tennis players, though, Nadal must concern himself with his own game:
- Go on a serving tear. He might need near 70 percent first serves and be able to pound his opponent’s reply with the forehand. If he cannot consistently hold, it will be too much for him to grind and break with his defense.
- Quick strike offense with flatter in-and-out forehands, particularly if he were to meet up with champions like Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, to say nothing of Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Milos Raonic, Nick Kyrgios and so on.
- Stay near or on the baseline. If he stands in the nether regions of the corners or plants into the wall, he’s not going to be able to run down faster shots in New York, especially with his diminished defense.
- Great punch from his backhand. This part to his game looked surprisingly strong in Brazil last week, at least when he was able to run down balls in the deuce corner, bend his knees and explode. It begins and ends with his speed and footwork.
- Belief and energy. Last year, Nadal had a crisis of confidence. Even when he played well, it was intermittent. At the U.S. Open third round, he was up two sets on mercurial Fabio Fognini before the Italian took control and hit Nadal off the court. Will these kinds of ebbs play into his head? Can he recover physically to avoid tired letdowns?
Nadal can be a factor at the U.S. Open if he is right physically, but he has a lot to prove if he is to defeat multiple top-10 players.
The ugly truth about his singles run at the Olympics is that he bowled through some tomato cans until Del Potro’s forehand handcuffed his ability to control the match. By the Nishikori tie, he was worn down and the residual effects continue.
Maybe a week of rejuvenation and focused training is all he needs to jump into the fray as a contender.
Perhaps fresh legs, a rested left wrist and jolt of energy is the only requirement to play deep into the second week.
Anybody who writes off Nadal does so at their peril. The Spaniard is the king of comebacks and a sage at keeping his cool when all seems to be falling apart. Today did not look so good, but tomorrow he could be turning back the clock for a run to the second week.
It’s going to be a couple more weeks before we know if he can indeed be a factor to play spoiler or win the U.S. Open.