Four Masters Series finals against the same man and instead of getting better it got worse.
Of course that sounds like a harsh thing to say because all finals were actually hard fought slug-fests from the baseline. Irrespective of the final score each battle was a huge one.
Saying that Rafael Nadal is stagnating is a dangerous statement. By stating this I am not undermining Novak Djokovic’s performances this season; on the contrary, the Serb’s level of play has been absolutely astounding.
As I have recently mentioned, I honestly believe that the current Djokovic is the model tennis player for this era. At the moment there are no flaws. There is no real tactic against the Serb that can hurt him and distract him from his aggressive baseline play.
Or so it seems. Could Nadal have done something different to beat Djokovic in any of those finals? The fact that the former could take a set of the latter in both Indian Wells and Miami and lose in straights on his beloved clay in Madrid and Rome seems like Nadal needs a real revamp of his game.
The Spaniards super spinning, parabolic strokes seem so obsolete against players like Djokovic, Murray and Del Potro.
To think that last year these shots won Nadal three slams is actually amazing, but it is indicative of how tennis constantly evolves itself.
And since clay is a slower surface it also gives more time to people like Djokovic—who move very well—to set up their shot with precision.
So why did the Mallorca resident win sets off the Serb on hard courts? Well after reviewing some highlights of all four matches it seems that Nadal plays closer to the baseline when playing on concrete. Not so much because he wants to, but because he has to.
This meant that, inevitably, a higher proportion of Nadal's shots would be hit close to the baseline, thus pushing Djokovic back. However, these instances were few and far between.
Further more in the pair’s first three finals, the Spaniards tactics were the same: get as many balls to Djokovics’s backhand as possible in order to push him out wide.
Why did Nadal believe that there was no need to change this tactic? Did he think that it was just a bad day at the office for him?
In the final of the Rome Masters, the clay king tried to mix it up by attacking both of Djokovic’s wings, but again the fact that Nadal was not hitting penetrating shots proved to be his downfall.
Without those shots it becomes harder to attack the net, finish off points with less intensity, therefore not burning yourself out and feel confident about yourself.
Add to the fact that the Spaniard could not sustain his backhand throughout the whole match, plus hardly get any free points on his serve and there you have a recipe for failure.
Nadal may have played in six consecutive finals, meaning that his game still causes a lot of damage, but the fact is that he is losing against what seems to be the future game for tennis players; hitting relatively flat, penetrative, angled shots off both wings and having a great serve with a wicked return.
It is time for the Spanish Matador to bring back his flatter forehand that he use to use back in 2004 to such great effect. I believe that this would force him to play closer to the baseline and keep the rallies shorter.
Obviously I could be totally wrong, but sometimes the only way to go forward is by looking to the past for answers and this is an answer that just might take Rafael Nadal to the next level.