The Bull, Gored

Given the year Rafael Nadal has had, his great rival and friend Roger Federer did him an enormous favor in the second half of 2015. Toting a gleaming new SABR as the centerpiece of his re-tooled offense, Federer stole all the headlines. This was a great gift from the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion, because the headlines Nadal would have generated in and around the U.S. Open would have been ugly. Dispiriting. Soul-crushing.

It was a remarkably quiet if anxiety-laden U.S. Open for Nadal, his relative anonymity aided by the fact that he was ousted in the third round. Once, his nemesis was Novak Djokovic. Now it is Fabio Fognini. How far the mighty hath fallen.

It was easy to forget, enthralled was we all were by the handiwork of Djokovic, the eventual champion, and the sizzle of Federer, the runner-up, that Nadal is in deep trouble. The best spin you can put on it is that, for once, Nadal enters the fall season in reasonable health, not over-tennised. He’s still ranked No. 7, and with a strong finish he could move up considerably higher.

But don’t bet on it. Nadal hasn’t won a Masters title in the fall since 2005, back when Madrid was held indoors. And even at the very peak of his powers, Nadal has underwhelmed at the ATP’s annual year-end championships. His failure to win that title remains the single, glaring hole in his resume.

Even Nadal’s rivals have tried to bolster his floundering confidence. Shortly before Djokovic began his U.S. Open campaign, he spoke about Nadal to the press: “I’m sure he is really motivated to win the U.S. Open. He always has a chance. You can’t sign Nadal out, 14-time Grand Slam champion, he deserves [to be] a favorite.”

Despite the endorsement, Nadal wasn’t perceived as a favorite in Flushing Meadows; more alarmingly, he didn’t act like one. The toll of a stressful, problem-ridden year seemed to lay heavy on him. While the opinions expressed in the press are hardly the stuff you want to take to the bank, the players often reveal themselves, intentionally or not, when they’re subject to their meetings with the fourth estate.

Nadal has always had good relations with the press. They have valued his sincerity, humility, as well as his colorful turns of phrase (“We gonna see, no?”). But as this difficult year rolled on, Nadal’s willingness to reveal his doubts and lack of confidence struck some as oversharing. Many began to question his fitness as a competitor. Nadal kept his cool—until his news conference after winning his second-rounder at the U.S. Open.

“I am No. 8 in the world; I am not No. 100,” Nadal protested. “I am not so bad. After I arrive here with the victory, I come back to the locker room [hearing outsiders] saying how bad I am. Every day. … [It] seems like I come here and, if I am saying the truth, if I am being honest, it is bad. … I don’t know what you want of me.”

So there it is, out in the open. Things had gone from bad to worse. At wits end at Flushing Meadows, Nadal let the hurt show.

It’s a poignant quote, as so many have been from this sensitive 29-year-old whose on-court demeanor has been likened to that of a raging bull. It was a far cry from the man who, just weeks earlier in Montreal, had told an interlocutor how he almost always keeps such a sunny disposition. “Normally I don’t lose the smile,” Nadal said. “I do not have one reason to lose the smile, even if I lose 100 tennis matches in the future.”

Nadal wore that smile at the U.S. Open, and then he went out and won two sets from Fognini, got up a break at 3-1 in the third—and flamed out, losing that set, along with the next two. Nadal had never before lost from two sets up at a major. There’s a first time for everything, of course. But given his druthers, this is not exactly how Nadal would have wished this “first time” to happen.

Yet even that terrible loss didn’t destroy Nadal’s outward resolve. The 14-time Grand Slam singles champion denied that it was a “tougher” defeat than most, even though it guaranteed that for the first time in a decade, he would not win a Grand Slam title.

Instead of mourning, Nadal clutched for slivers of hope:

“My mind allows me to fight until the end [against Fognini]. Is something that I was missing for a while, that feeling that I am there. For the nerves, for the anxious[ness] that I had for a long time this season, I was not able to do it. I was not able to be fighting the way that I was fighting today. So [it] is an improvement for me.”

Was Nadal merely trying to make a purse out of a sow’s ear? It’s hard to tell. On one hand, everyone ought to cut him some slack. On the other, everyone but trigger-happy critics have been cutting him slack most of the year already.

Those who believe Nadal has lost half a step, or isn’t hitting with his familiar velocity and ferocity are right—and wrong. For Nadal’s long struggle with confidence has been an inhibiting factor in his game. This has had strategic and tactical repercussions that have manifested in subtle ways.

“If you hit the ball a bit shorter, the opponent has more space,” Nadal explained. “If you hit the ball with a little bit of less confidence, then there is not as much topspin like used to be. If you hit shorter, you will run slower. Is not you run slower, but the opponent take the ball earlier so it looks like you are slower, no? Is easy to understand, easy to explain, difficult to change, but I going to do it.”

Nadal has made that same promise a number of times this year. It hasn’t been fulfilled yet, and it’s unlikely to come to fruition in the months ahead. That means 2016 will be a critical year for Nadal—and you can be sure that once it gets underway, the spotlight will find him once again.

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