Soon after Rafael Nadal suffered a surprising five-set defeat to Lucas Pouille, the hypothesis that the bull from Mallorca might be withering away gathered steam. And though the Spaniard remained defiant in his post match comments, father time is ticking away, slowly yet surely. It's imprudent to write off a warrior like Nadal, but it is beginning to emerge that his best summers are a thing of the past.
Nadal's quest for a 15th major title has been on hold since 2014, when he won his ninth French Open crown at Roland Garros. Injuries to the knee and wrist have been partly to blame, but Nadal has reached no further than the quarter-final stage since that victory in Paris.
Over the years, the Spaniard imposed himself with a powerful concoction of power and spin that left his opponents writhing in frustration. Nadal gored the best of the lot into submission with his aggression and energy from the back of the court. Not even Roger Federer could find an answer against the Spanish matador.
Even when the chips were down, Nadal ground out victories with an irrepressible spirit that saw him retrieve balls with ceaseless accuracy. He frustrated opponents into conceding defeat, through sheer tenacity and willpower.
But therein lies the problem. A style heavily reliant on wearing down opponents meant that Nadal's game and armoury took its toll on his body. The injuries became nearly as unrelenting as the Spaniard himself, as they kept visiting the great champion season after season.
In the latter half of the previous decade, Nadal was often a shadow of himself, especially in the second half of the season. He finally seemed to have found the keys to the riddle, when he returned from a knee injury in 2009, to win three straight Grand Slam titles in 2010.
The world No 5 showed a reinvigorated spirit in 2013, when he made four finals and won three titles. That rush of success came in the aftermath of a tendinitis injury that forced him out of the US Open in 2012 and the Australian Open in 2013.
Since then though, Nadal has been trying in vain to resuscitate his flagging fortunes. It is now six Grand Slams since he has survived into the second week, a fact that is beginning to wither his confidence.
In New York this year, he enjoyed commanding victories in the first three rounds. But a closer look at the statistics will tell you Nadal hit just six aces against 15 double faults across his four matches. The first serve percentage has also been rooted firmly in the high 50s, indicating a troubling trend.
In the past, Nadal did not need his serve to be at its best. The Spaniard's racket skills from the back of the court and an uncanny ability to impart spin helped him gain control of the rallies even if the serve was sub-optimal. Speed on his feet allowed him to gain a position of strength, often running around his backhand to whip bestial winners with his ferociously effective forehand.
The power in his arms produced depth for Nadal, and he kept opponents pinned behind the baseline, engaging in an attritional battle to slow but certain death.
But he is 30-years-old now, a wounded warrior trying to rediscover the brutal force that once helped him reign over the tennis world. The grim determination is still intact, but his ever dependable game seems to be giving away more often than not.
Against Pouille on Saturday, Nadal worked his way back from a 1-2 deficit, as you might have expected him to. But, with a break in the bag and the match virtually on his racket at 4-3, 30-0 in the fifth set, Nadal made uncharacteristic errors to let it slip away into a decisive breaker.
Nadal certainly showed glimpses of the fight within that makes him such a feared warrior. The Spaniard saved three match points from 3-6, before missing a put-away forehand from inside the service box. As inexplicable as that lapse may have been, this is certainly not the matador we have known for much of his storied career.
As we trail away into the off-season, Nadal and his uncle-coach Toni will have to ponder over these cracks. Nadal's monumental visage of strength has withered under the sun, and player and coach would need some imaginative answers.
Nadal does not evoke fear in his opponents, as he did in his prime. The relentless depth of his groundstrokes, a consistent feature of his game, has given way to a shorter ball. Nadal's ability to produce stunning blows even from positions of weakness is a thing of the past.
He has been guilty of letting his opponents take the ball early, forcing him to run across the baseline far more often than in the past. Nadal would need to adapt to the changing realities by resorting to more aggressive tactics. In that sense, it is perhaps time to substitute resilience with aggression.
As he deals with an ageing body and slower recovery times, Nadal faces an urgent need to reinvent parts of his game to keep the whole effective. One of the weapons that he needs to sharpen immediately is the serve. A consistent first serve gains importance now, and will be essential for Nadal's success.
He will also need to take advantage of his left-handed action, using placement as an effective tool in his armoury. Hard work, so long the central dogma of his game, will need to be supplemented with some intelligent choices, as he chases a remarkable 15th Grand Slam title.
First Published On : Sep 6, 2016 09:54 IST