Rafael Nadal's Level Has Dropped Significantly in 2011: Myth or Reality?
The 2011 season is coming to a close and it's clear that tennis has a new king in the form of Novak Djokovic, who has eclipsed the king of old, Rafael Nadal.
Over the course of 2011, Nadal fans and observers have often voiced concern that the Spaniard wasn't quite at the level where he resided in his three-slam wonder-year in 2010.
This thought often also entails that while Djokovic has surely improved his level, Nadal's own drop in level is as significant in explaining his six straight final loses to the new No. 1.
My basic question is whether Nadal's level has in fact dropped significantly—or whether the main explanation is that Djokovic has simply usurped Nadal as the best tennis player in the world.
Evaluating level from season to season will always be somewhat of a subjective conjecture. Also, while Rafa's level might indeed have dropped a little, any tennis player will know that how well you play, also depends on how well your opponent allows you to play.
In other words, it is possible for Djokovic to make Nadal play worse than he otherwise would. Just as it has been possible for Nadal to make Roger Federer play worse, make more unforced errors and miss huge number of breakpoints, when those two meet.
Nevertheless, with these caveats in mind, let's take a look at the stats to see if we can find a drop or not.
First, we note that Nadal has turned 25 this season and age wise that would suggest that he's in his absolute prime. Now, let's move to the other numbers.
Looking at the statistics for 2011, it is clear that Rafa's return game hasn't suffered much. He's No. 2 in return games won, No. 3 in breakpoints converted, first in second-service points won and third against the first serves.
Only Djokovic does better in those categories. While I do not have the 2010 statistics, I believe it is safe to say that Rafa's return game cannot have been much better than this.
His serve is more of an open question as I do not possess the 2010 data and his positions are further removed from the top. He's No. 17 in service games won, 12 in breakpoints saved, second in second-serve points won, 26th in first-serve points won (Djokovic is 20th here), sixth in first serve percentage and 36th in aces.
While he probably did better in some of these categories in 2010, I doubt that he was leading them.
The data is more readily available with regards to finals won and lost.
Here Rafa has already made the same finals he did last year, namely nine, but whereas he had a 7-2 record last year in finals, he's a less stellar 3-6 this year.
Nadal made as many Grand Slam finals, he's made the same clay court finals, but he's won less. Needless to say, all six final loses have come at the hands of Djokovic.
Losing in a final is not common for our man Rafa. Prior to this season, he was an astounding 43-13 in finals in general and 9-2 in Slam finals.
While the numbers now (46-19 and 10-4) are less impressive, they still speak of a man, who wins when he can see the finish line.
It is a fair assumption to make that had Djokovic not been here or had he been the player he was in 2010, Nadal's title count would look a whole lot more like 7-2, possibly better. And, he would still have and still has three to four tournaments left to add to that count.
Regarding wins and loses, he's 59-11 for the season and 13-8 against the top-10. Last year, he was 67-9 at the end of the season and 11-5 versus top-10 players.
Looking at a similar point in time, post the US Open 2010, he was 55-6 and 7-4 versus top-10. Retract Djokovic and it becomes 59-5 and 13-2 (2011) versus 55-7 and 7-4. The difference is not massive, but the 2011 numbers are better.
Looking at these numbers, we see that Nadal has played double the number of top-10 players compared to last year. This indicates that the rest of the top 10 is playing better and better at making it to the deep end of the tournaments.
Also, had Djokovic not been around, he would be 13-2 against top-10 players compared to 7-4 last year. In other words, significantly better than last year.
Now, you may object and say, wait a minute, three of those four loses came before the players hit the clay and Nadal truly started his 2010 and won his first tournament in nine months. Even so, it makes the record 7-1 compared to 13-2 (Djokovic not included).
And if you accept that he only lost to David Ferrer in this year's Australian Open, his top-10 record for 2011 becomes 13-1, which is certainly more impressive than 7-1.
Looking at the available stats, it is thus hard to find evidence for the theory that Nadal's level has dropped. If anything, he is doing better against his fellow players with Djokovic as the notable exception.
Djokovic, on the other hand, was doing a whole lot worse in 2010.
Coming into the US Open, the man they now call unbeatable, was a meager 0-3 against top-10 and 1-4 post the US Open.
For the record, Nadal and Djokovic met twice, once at the US Open final and once at the World Tour Finals in London, Nadal winning both matches though Djokovic was on track in the latter until contact lenses disturbed his focus.
Again, this points to Nadal's problem being Djokovic, not his own level of play.
Of course, looking at the stats won't do it alone. I admit that I do not watch 20+ matches with Nadal per year, so his most dedicated fans may possible be able to see something that I don't as they have a much larger basis for comparison.
The obvious difference is the serve.
At the US Open in 2010, Nadal served at close to 120 mph on average, 10 mph per hour more than at the 2010 Australian Open. At the US Open 2011, his serve was back to its pre-US Open 2010 speed, though he did manage an average first serve of 115 mph against Murray in the semis.
But even so, that great serve was not characteristic for Nadal's 2010 as a whole.
While it improved over the course of 2010 (and his career), it was an aberration that got the entire tennis world talking about it throughout the US Open.
It may very well have been a primary reason for Nadal winning that US Open, but it was not the primary reason for his stellar season.
Some will say that he's not hitting his forehand as deep and that his shots in general are lacking a bit of bite. I say, watch him pass Andy Murray and Andy Roddick at will in this year's US Open.
Nadal's 2011 problems has little to do with a significant decline in his level and everything to do with the sensation of this season, Djokovic.
You might argue that Nadal is playing worse against Djokovic than against other opponents and though in my opinion this is not true for their US Open final, it probably is true for some of their matches.
The problem is that this again has everything to do with Djokovic and only little to do with Nadal himself.
Sure, he could have been more clutch in some of their matches, but while we've always pictured Nadal as one of the all-time best clutch players, this year shows us that being a great clutch player is solely something you are.
Rather, playing your best at crunch time, depends on knowing, deep down that you are the best and have the tools available at your disposal to turn the match around and win it.
Until Nadal met the Djokovic, he's always had that belief and inner-confidence (safe during injury periods).
But as Djokovic has continuously beaten Nadal at his own game, defending better, winning the long rallies and having the consistency to go for one more shot as often as he pleases.
Nadal has found himself in the unfamiliar position of having no answers and weapons that were good enough (see my analysis of why Djokovic keeps beating Nadal here, written prior to this year's clay season)
Djokovic is the first player Nadal can't beat from within his comfort zone and that is the primary reason for Nadal's dip in confidence and clutch play against the Serbian world No. 1.
The scary part for Nadal and his fans? Djokovic is playing within his comfort zone, while he's beaten Nadal six straight times.
Nadal's level isn't the major difference, Djokovic is.
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