A lot at stake for Nadal in 2012
Next year will be a crucial year for the Spaniard after having lost so much in 2011: his number one ranking, his US Open and Wimbledon titles, and his domination on clay after defeats both in Madrid and Rome.
But beyond the fact that tables were turning, Nadal was forced to accept that another guy was better than him. This year, there was a player who could really hurt him: Novak Djokovic. The process of accepting that was painful.
A flawless rising
In order to understand better how Rafa feels, we need to look back and realise how outstanding his rise was. Not only did the Spaniard win everything, he never stopped moving forward. Not a single player posed much of an issue for him in the past and whenever he did lose, he usually found a solution to gain revenge the next time they met.
His main goal was to win the French Open. Once that was achieved, he decided to focus on Wimbledon, a tournament deemed to be the most complicated for him regarding his technique and style of game. So Rafa changed his technique and after reaching the final two years in succession, he finally won the title. Losing has always been the exception for him…
The Djokovic issue
… until this terrible losing streak against Novak Djokovic. The Serbian - full of confidence following his Davis Cup triumph and in possession of a perfect game plan that targets Rafa's flaws — crushed Nadal six times in a row in finals: Indian Wells, Miami, Madrid, Rome, Wimbledon and the US Open.
Nadal lost some of the length on his shots and Djokovic knows how to play inside the court, how to take the ball early in order to avoid being upset by the topspin of the Spaniard. When this happens, Rafa struggles on his forehand with flat and long shots. Every time Nole attacks this side, forcing Nadal to play shorter to then dictate the point. The Majorcan hates being stuck on his diagonal backhand, because he prefers dictating with his forehand while turning around his backhand. But the Serbian, with his forehand, which uses topspin and can take Rafa out of the court, is able to keep Rafa on his backhand. Then he's searching for all the shorter balls in order to attack. Finally, Rafa's second serve is often lacking in length and weight so Novak knows how to take advantage of it in order to take control of the point.
Djoko perfectly studied Rafa's game and now knows in advance the sequences he likes. That's how he knows each time how to counter punch him, by anticipating some rather stereotyped tactical options.
His mind is hurt
Beyond those results, Rafa sometimes even looked like he was resigned to defeat. He wasn't able to find a solution, whether it was on hard courts, grass, or even on clay. And those failures attacked his mind, even though that has been the basis of his game and one of the weapons that explains his success. Even he admitted "he didn't believe enough against Djokovic".
So, after winning the technical and tactical fight, the Serbian also claimed Rafa's mind. Those losses and their consequences on his state of mind lead to more defeats in the second part of the season.
Rafa has won everything. He has always found solutions in order to win the fights he really cares about. Rafa has always got what he wants in his sport. What's happening now is totally new and traumatic for him. The Majorcan has never known losing, especially not repeated failures to the same opponent.
How he could come back to the top
Will Rafa be able to return to his best level? That's an understandable question to ask. His first goal will be to get the desire, the motivation and the passion back. It's mandatory if he wants to win Majors again. Then, a huge challenge awaits him: he'll have to find a solution against Novak Djokovic. And in order to do that, he'll have to improve in some key areas:
- The serve. Even if it has already improved, Rafa's serve remains something he has to get stronger on. His percentage of points won on his first serve isn't enough with 71 per cent during the year. Against someone as good as returning as Djokovic, this percentage decreases and the Spaniard struggles. To improve on this, he will also have to work on his rhythm and on how to play with a looser wrist so he can speed up the whip.
- The backhand. Even if this shot has also improved, it's still too fragile and Novak is using the diagonal in order to boss points. Rafa will have to be better set on the ground and better transfer his bodyweight.
- Ball length/ball directions. The Spaniard must at all cost find more length of striking. If he fails, he will be exposed to the aggression of a player like Djokovic. In order to get this required length, he has to play with more margin regarding the net. Beyond the advantage it offers length-wise, it is also a good way to slow down the game in front of such a fierce counter-puncher like Djokovic. It's better to slow it down than to speed it up because Djokovic loves speed and can create an even faster point.
- Tactics. Nadal's game is relatively stereotyped. He's often predictable, but his sequences are so efficient that it's never easy to counter them. So now, Rafa's challenge is to use his forehand in the most efficient way, and it'd be even better by turning around his backhand. On this position on the court that he loves, it's very rare for him not to end with a winner because he can touch all zones. So he'll have to tactically find how to get in this position most of the time.
- Mentality. Rafa needs to approach his battles with the Serbian differently. If he has the right game plan it could help him to be more daring and to believe more in his chances.
As far as I'm concerned, this year will be decisive for the Majorcan. If his motivation level remains lower than during the previous years, due to the losing situation he's seems stuck in, then he'll be in real danger. His game relies on his mind. Rafa needs to find, and fast, the path back to victory. He knows it, he wants it. But will he be able to do it?