Rafael Nadal: "I Played Worse Than Last Year"—Is He Right?

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Rafael Nadal:
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In the aftermath of the US Open, I wrote this article discussing whether Rafa's level in 2011 had dropped significantly or not in comparison with 2010. My conclusion was that it hadn't and that the main difference mainly was a guy named Novak Djokovic.

Now, the Spanish Bull himself weighs in on the debate, saying that: 

"I believe Rafa 2010 had something more special than Rafa 2011, especially in tough situations".

"Winning or losing depends on very, very, very small things," expanded Nadal, who finished runner-up to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon and US Open finals. "And probably these very, very small things I did a little bit better in 2010 than 2011. It is hard to win big matches. I lost a lot of finals this year. This year I lost 7 out of 10."

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"I don’t think the level has been better than 2010 or 2009. I think it has been similar," said the Mallorcan. "For my part and Roger's part a little bit worse for the moment.

"I played worse than last year. I was very consistent, probably even more consistent than last year, but I played a little bit worse, I think. I think Roger played well, but he lost a few matches that in the past he never would have lost."

The ATP article also states that Andy Murray believes that the level has gone up a notch this season. 

So, what and who are we to believe? Murray and me, or Rafa?

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Nadal says that his consistency has been slightly better, which is true given that he's already reached 10 finals with the opportunity to add more this year, as opposed to nine finals in total last year.

Yet, he also claims that he and Federer's level have dropped.

With Federer, it seems evident given he's only won one ATP 250 this season, and though doing reasonably well at the slams, it is still a sub-par and aging Federer we've been witnessing. Losing two 2-0 leads in a slam in a row—something he's never done before—is in this respect a new low. 

Rafa is not exactly known for over-stating his own level and is not afraid to say when somebody is in his head, as Djokovic has been for the better part of this year. This gives credibility to him when he comes out and says he feels he played better last year. 

On the other hand, there's also the question of what a player needs to believe in order to regain a winning formula.

By this logic, it is easier for Nadal to move forward if he himself believes that he has been at a level that is good enough to beat Djokovic 2.0 and thus, only needs to rediscover the things he did right, rather than having to raise his game to an even higher level. 

Nadal has been criticized for being too submissive in his statements about Djokovic and for saying openly that his game 'doesn't bother Djokovic' this year. Admitting, or claiming if you will, that he has played worse this year, is the opposite.

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It's saying to Djokovic and the rest of the field: "I'll be back with vengeance as soon as I find my mojo."

Going beyond the psychological motivations for saying this and that, what do the stats tell us, and what do our eyes see?

Two of the most important stats in tennis are service games won and return games won. Here, Nadal's hold game has gone down from a world-leading 90 percent to a more mediocre 84 percent. Djokovic by contrast has gone up from 80 to 87 percent.

It is to be noted that Nadal has only won 60 percent of his service games against Djokovic in their six matches (based on percentage per match, not by counting each and every single service game), as opposed to 87.5 percent in their two matches last year. Djokovic accounts for about half the drop in Nadal's hold game.

As to return games, Nadal's level has actually gone up from 29 percent won to 36 percent (Djokovic: 34 to 41 percent). Nadal's overall percentage of games won has thus gone slightly up from 119 percent to 120 percent (Djokovic has exploded from 114 percent to 128 percent).

This supports Nadal's own admission that his consistency is probably better.

The most glaring statistical difference in Nadal's game is his new found inability to win finals. Up until this year, Nadal was almost a lock once he was in a final. Last year, he won seven titles in nine finals. This year, it's three out of 10—six of them lost to Djokovic.

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This could support Nadal's claim that he's doing the little things a little bit worse. His game is still good enough to get him to the finals (even more so than last year), but not good enough to win them.

Yet, the counter-argument is that Nadal has lost six of those finals to the same man, and that those loses are not due to a drop in Nadal's level, but a phenomenal rise in Djokovic's level. Nadal losing to a Murray this hot in Tokyo doesn't contradict that picture. 

In fact, Nadal's record against the other two members of the top four is vastly better in 2011 than in 2010. He's 3-0 against Federer as opposed to 1-1. He's 4-1 against Murray as opposed to 2-2. Then of course, he's also 0-6 against Djokovic as opposed to 2-0. 

So, what do our eyes tell us? 

It's hard not to agree with Rafa, when he says that "I believe Rafa 2010 had something more special than Rafa 2011, especially in tough situations."

Failing to win Indian Wells and Miami against Djokovic despite winning the first set is a sign of that. Especially the Miami tie-break against Djokovic, where he, the tennis equivalent to the energizer bunny, even seemed fatigued. 

Failing to win any of the first two sets at the US Open despite being up a break is another sign of that. So is failing to built on his momentum and take advantage of Djokovic's injury in the fourth set of that match. 

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Yet, most of Rafa's poor play in "tough situations" this year has come against Djokovic, which leaves us with "is it the chicken or the egg question."

Or, in tennis terms, is Rafa genuinely less tough or is it primarily a result of Djokovic's level of play?

It's hard not to admit that Rafa seems to lack some of his toughness and confidence while playing Djokovic this year. 

But I would and have argued that this is primarily due to Djokovic, and thus, harder for Rafa to change the dynamics of their rivalry. 

In my opinion, Djokovic 2011 represents an opponent that Rafa had never had to face before, and this is what robs him of his confidence. As a consequence, his toughness when push comes to shove, has somewhat disappeared. 

More specifically, Nadal has always been able to outlast and outgrind any opponent, which gives Nadal a mental advantage and the opponent a disadvantage going into the match.

Not so against Djokovic 2011. 

Related to this, Nadal has always been more consistent than his opponent, and could rely on winning the point, the longer the rally went. Not so against Djokovic.

Nadal has always been able to run down his opponents best shots and forcing them to hit three winners in order to win the point. Now, Djokovic does the same to Nadal.

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Nadal's favourite cross-court forehand does little damage against one of the best two-handed backhands the game has ever seen. Djokovic has neutralized or cancelled almost all of Nadal's normal advantages, and this leaves Nadal without a clear game plan and without anywhere to go.

I do agree with Nadal that he plays a bit worse in tough situations, and that he's doing the small things a little bit worse. But I also agree with Murray that Djokovic has taken the game up a notch and this, in my opinion, is the primary reason for Nadal looking less tough this year.

That said, tennis is also a game of the mind.

And while Djokovic beating Rafa six straight times is a result of him coming up with answers to whatever Rafa throws at him, it is also a virtuous circle that gives Djokovic more confidence and belief with each win, and robs Rafa of the very same, making him less tough in pressure situations.

One Rafa win will not make his problems beating Djokovic entirely disappear, but it would put the mental game on a more equal footing.  

 

 

 

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