Heading into the 2011 Australian Open only seven months ago, Rafael Nadal was looking to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam event. Roger Federer appeared to have entered a decline, and with no one else really making a push, he was in prime position to dominate men's tennis.
Fast forward to where we are now and not only is Nadal not dominating the game, he isn't even ranked No. 1 anymore.
After losing in the Wimbledon finals, it brings up the question of whether or not Nadal's career could be on a downswing. Here's a look at what the King of Clay is currently looking to overcome to avoid a downswing.
The style of game that Nadal plays is probably the most taxing of any player in the history of the game. Injuries have already limited some of his potential in his career thus far, and he's not getting any younger.
The Mallorcan has had injury issues in the two majors that he didn't win this year and, in fact, most of the slams he hasn't won in recent history.
Many players can win major events when they aren't 100 percent, but that is not something very likely for Nadal. He needs to have everything working right because of the way he plays in order to defeat the top players in the world.
Rafa has also played a lot of tennis already in his career. He does not take much time off and he obviously wins a lot of matches, so he has a lot of miles on his body already. Playing every point like it's his last does not help either.
It's obviously impossible to predict when and how often Nadal will get hurt, but it's clearly something to worry about. He would do well to play fewer events in the upcoming years.
After winning the 2010 U.S. Open to wrap up his career Grand Slam, it looked like Nadal was well on his way to at least challenging Federer's record of 16 Grand Slam singles titles. It was the most comfortable he had ever looked on a hard court.
However, the 2011 season has looked more like Nadal's early career, when he was mostly a one-trick pony on the clay courts. He won his sixth French Open in seven years but came up short at Australia and Wimbledon.
Even though three of the four majors are not played on clay courts, Nadal still only has a total of four wins outside of Paris. He will most likely win at least a couple of more French Open titles—if not more—but needs some good runs at the other majors if he wants to make a run at Federer.
Novak Djokovic, the winner of the 2011 Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships, is looking like the best player on both hard and grass courts these days. That presents an even bigger problem for Nadal because...
After losing in the Wimbledon final to Djokovic, Nadal finds himself with an 0-5 head-to-head record against the Serbian in 2011, all in finals. Djokovic is clearly in the head of the the 10-time Grand Slam champion.
The game of tennis is just as mental as it is physical—if not more. The change that Djokovic has made this year to finally get over the hump and reach No. 1 in the world epitomizes that more than anything in recent memory.
Nadal's current problem with Djokovic is similar to Federer's problem with Nadal over the years. All three are similiar in talent level so their matches come down to the mental side.
It's hard to reverse a mental edge or disadvantage, as Djokovic would know (it took him quite a long time to be able to knock off Federer and Nadal on the big stage). Right now, the Serbian is riding all kinds of momentum and it will be hard for Nadal to take him out.
Nadal has repeat championships at the French Open twice (2005-2008 and 2010-2011), but has been unable to do so at the other majors.
With the recent emergence of Djokovic, that factor is unlikely to change. He had an opportunity to repeat this year at Wimbledon, and was even the favorite to do so, but fell victim to a changing of the guard in the game.
He hasn't even reached two finals at Australia and New York, and is more vulnerable to going down to a big hitter on those court surfaces.
All of these things have to begin weighing on the mind of the Mallorcan star. While he is still No. 2 in the world, he now has to deal with an uber-confident Djokovic if he is going to break Federer's record.
Despite all of the problems Nadal is dealing with, you can not count out a resurgence. Other than injury issues and Djokovic there isn't much that he has to worry about.
Nadal's 10 Grand Slam victories put him in an elite class and he is still in his prime. His dominance at the French Open gives him a great chance at pushing 16-plus Grand Slams and winning the most ever.
You also have to look at the motivation of Nadal. He never gives anything away to his opponents and gives everything he has every time he steps out on the court.
The 2011 U.S. Open will be an important event for Nadal to see how he bounces back from losing to Djokovic on the Grand Slam stage for the first time. If he can somehow repeat his title in New York, he will have won five of the last seven Grand Slams played.