Rafael Nadal's rocky start to the 2016 season has some tennis experts writing the obituary for his career.
Nadal's suffered through slumps before. He's come back from injury to win a Grand Slam. Yet this time, the dialogue about his demise appears definitive. His age, the losses and the way in which he's losing have many predicting the end is near.
Since his first-round loss at the 2016 Australian Open, Nadal has lost two semifinal matches in clay-court tournaments in which he was the No. 1 seed. In both he took the first set. His latest loss, to Pablo Cuevas in Rio, came after getting a walkover in the quarterfinals.
Although stunning, the Australian Open loss was on hard courts to Fernando Verdasco, a talented veteran who knows Nadal's game. These more recent losses were in lower-level tournaments, on clay, a surface Nadal has dominated most of his career.
Getting bounced at "third-tier" tournaments is the "new normal" for Nadal, wrote Chris Chase for FoxSports.com. He continued:
But here was the most surprising thing about this weekend’s loss to the strictly mediocre Cuevas: It wasn’t a surprise. There was no shock. There was no awe. As recently as two years ago this would have brought the equivalent of “Man on Moon” headlines in the tennis world. Now it was like the fourth-most interesting thing to happen this weekend.
Two years ago, when Nadal lost back-to-back clay-court tournaments at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Tennis Channel's Steve Flink reported that "the tennis community is in a state of bewilderment and even astonishment."
That year, Nadal went on to win the French Open, defeating Novak Djokovic in four sets.
So why all the doubt this year? Some of it is the eye-ball test. Nadal looks slower, less confident.
As Tennis magazine's Steve Tignor pointed out, "Both of Nadal’s defeats followed what has become a characteristic late-career pattern for him. He lost to Dominic Thiem in Buenos Aires after holding a match point and to Pablo Cuevas in Rio after fighting back from a break down and forcing a tiebreaker in the second set."
Former ATP World Tour player Barry Cowan told Sky Sports that Nadal has lost his "nerve."
Cowan, speaking about Nadal's loss to Cuevas, noted that the Spaniard no longer intimidates opponents, even on clay. "Rafa won so many of his matches, especially on on clay, before he even walked onto the court. Players didn't believe they could beat him, but now players like Cuevas, who is 30 years of age, believes he can," said Cowan, per Sky Sports.
That's mostly due to the fact that Nadal is no longer closing out matches the way he used to. He's giving up leads and squandering match points.
He's also turning 30 in June. Perhaps the accumulative impact of grinding rallies in hundreds of matches have taken a toll on Nadal's body.
A 2009 New York Times Magazine feature written by Cynthia Groney and titled "Ripped. (Or Torn Up?)," explored the price Nadal might be paying for the grueling grind.
Groney included an interview she had with tennis coach and former ATP player Jose Higueras, who talked about watching a teenage Nadal practice. “The intensity, in every single shot he hit at that age, was unbelievable. When you see him practice, it’s pretty spectacular. Every ball he hits with the same intensity and power. Every day, it’s like it’s going to be the last practice of his life.”
That same intensity that propelled Nadal to 14 Grand Slam titles may have contributed to the sudden deterioration of his game.
In the same New York Times Magazine article, Nadal scoffed at the idea that he was running his body into the ground.
“They were saying this three years ago, that I couldn’t last. And after four years, I’m better than I ever was. This irritates me, no? I’m tired of people telling me I can’t go on playing like this. In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything. I can’t control how I play."
Fast-forward five years and those words appear prophetic: "In the end this is what makes me win, lose, everything."
Three out of four picked Nadal. Tennis writer Peter Bodo told ESPN, "It's always sad to see a guy losing his mojo for no apparent reason, and that's exactly what's happened to the 'King of Clay.'"
Pam Shriver added, "I still think Rafa's problems are much more complex and involves many more aspects of his game—physical, mental, emotional. We saw how much he struggled last year, and after a first-round exit in Australia, that belief is not back yet."
Three years ago, few would have thought Nadal's career could end before Federer's. Nadal was ranked No. 1, and Federer was in a slump. Now Federer is ranked No. 3, Nadal No. 5. Federer is 8-2. Nadal is 8-4.
Federer's losses have come to Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinal and Milos Raonic in the Brisbane final. Meanwhile, Nadal has yet to beat anyone ranked above No. 33.
Whether it's lack of confidence, a broken-down body or both, Nadal can expect as many "end of career" questions as Federer.