Rafael Nadal has not had a bad year. He’s had the kind of year that most tennis players would be willing to trade their entire careers for. Moreover, compared to the past, Nadal has been quite lucky with his health through 2011, with only minor injuries to deal with.
Yet, compared to his 2010, Nadal’s 2011 both looks and feels worse. Most prominent is perhaps the slam count. In 2010, Nadal made three slam finals and won them all. In 2011, he made another three slam finals but only won one.
The main reason for the change? A man by the name of Novak Djokovic, who put together one of the best seasons in tennis history and surpassed Nadal at the tennis zenith.
And while winning “just” one slam instead of three may appear bad, it is even worse that Nadal has lost six straight finals to a man he used to own when it mattered most (Novak had never beaten Nadal in their five previous finals nor in a slam tournament prior to 2011).
While some have argued that Nadal has played significantly worse in 2011 and that that is the reason for his downfall, I am not one of them. I’m not saying he played better or at the exact same level, but that it is hard to see a significant decline.
From January to September, Nadal did just as good against the field, Djokovic excluded, played and beat far more top 10 players and made more finals compared to 2010.
What Djokovic has done to Nadal this year has got to affect him mentally. While his general level hasn’t dipped much, he’s not as rock solid mentally as he used to be. When the chips were down between the two this year, Nadal was usually the first one to blink.
I would argue that the reason for this is that Djokovic has been the first man to stand up to Nadal physically and mentally. Prior to 2011, it was a truism that the longer the point and the longer the match, the greater the likelihood of Nadal winning it.
It was, at least partially, from knowing that Nadal became the clutch player we all know him as. Against Djokovic this year, that truism has simply no longer been true.
Djokovic has been as good or better than Nadal in winning the long rallies, and he has been tireless enough to be capable of responding to whatever Nadal threw at him at any point in the match.
He’s beaten Nadal at his own game and this, in my opinion, is what has robbed Nadal of his confidence and clutch play against Djokovic in particular. In the fall, other players started taking advantage of it, too.
What are we to think of his 2012 campaign?
He has the momentum from Spain’s incredible Davis Cup victory, something Djokovic used to kick start his own 2011. Yet he also has the knowledge of those six straight loses to a player he used to own.
Some say that Nadal is much older than his birthday due to his punishing style of play and many years at the top of the tour. By this line of thought, 2011 is the first sign of a slowly-aging Nadal and 2012 should see the continuation of that trend.
I don’t quite see it that way. There’s been talk of Nadal retiring prematurely ever since his early 20s and how his style of play is unsustainable and his injuries are too abundant for him to stay at the top.
Yet every time Nadal has proved critics wrong. Almost every year the once one-dimensional player has come back to the court with a new trick in his already plentiful arsenal. Every year, he’s become less and less a one-surface player to an extent where he now masters every surface.
And while his confidence has taken a hit, we’ve also seen him play with low confidence in 2009, only to bounce back stronger than ever in 2010.
The obvious difference between 2009 and 2011 is that his poor second half of 2009 was largely attributed to injuries, whereas his loses this year are largely due to Djokovic.
One should never count a great champion down and out, and Nadal is a great champion. If Djokovic fails to reproduce the form that saw him go undefeated for 40-plus matches at the start of 2011, Nadal will be first in line to take advantage.
And which Djokovic will show up at the 2012 Australian Open is one of the main questions in men’s tennis right now.
If he just gets one win over his chief rival, the broken confidence may come back sooner rather than later. And Nadal, like most other players, only gets better when he is winning.
So, again, what to expect?
If Djokovic reproduces his form, I don’t see how Nadal can turn the rivalry around. Sure, he can get a win or two, but Djokovic has been winning those six matches for a reason, namely that he’s been playing a similar game better.
But if Djokovic is just a few percent off, Nadal is right there and ready to strike. While his confidence has been hit through the year, it has also been lifted at the Davis Cup, and by seeing that Djokovic is not invincible in every single match.
My prediction: Expect Nadal to finish his eighth consecutive year in the top two, with a chance of No. 1 if Djokovic’s level is a notch or two below his 2011 level (provided Nadal stays relatively injury-free).
But also expect other players like Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, among others, to try and use the blueprint that Djokovic has given them and in general be more competitive against the top two in men’s tennis.