Australian Open 2019: Despite loss to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal’s insatiable hunger to improve continues to inspire

In his semi-final match against Stefanos Tsitsipas, Rafael Nadal was pushed well wide of the tramlines by a flat, hard, sharply-angled backhand. He was so hopelessly out of position that doing anything from there seemed impossible. And then…it happened.

We’ve seen it a million times. We have spent hours dissecting its physics-defying trajectory. We have grown accustomed to hearing the roaring applause it always elicits. And yet the Nadal banana forehand still makes our jaw drop in amazement.

Australian Open 2019: Despite loss to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal’s insatiable hunger to improve continues to inspire

Spain's Rafael Nadal waves as he leaves Rod Laver Arena. AP

Every. Single. Time.

This one was even more special than usual, because of how safe it was. Curling a shot in from outside the doubles alley involves some serious risk, as you are trying to bend the path of the ball through sheer will power. And in this instance, Nadal had the added difficulty of hitting it around the net post because of how far outside the court he was.

But he somehow got the ball to zip in with ferocious pace, and touchdown about a foot inside the court. He didn’t need to aim for the line; he was good enough to telepathically communicate with the ball and make it land in the large target area he had marked out.

It was a clean, eye-popping winner, but it was also a shot that you suspected Nadal could make with his eyes closed. ‘Vintage Rafa’ had made an appearance in Melbourne, to go with all the newfound tweaks in his game.

Will that kind of insane shot-making be the lasting memory that Nadal takes away from the 2019 Australian Open, or will it be the beat-down he received from Novak Djokovic in the final?

For Nadal to reach the final at all despite not having played since the US Open is an objectively terrific achievement, irrespective of what the Serb did to him once he got there. But there’s another reason for Nadal to look back at this tournament positively: through the first six rounds, he played at a higher level than he ever had before.

Nobody had an answer to his new, first-strike style of play until he ran into the human chainsaw called Djokovic.

That Nadal and his team had done plenty of work in the off-season to elevate his game was evident in each deafening blow he struck on the court this Australian Open. The much-talked-about serve improvement showed tangible results, as the Spaniard was broken just twice – both times in his first round match – before the final. The one-two punch also worked wonders; Nadal kept standing at the baseline for the follow-up shot after the serve, and kept finding the corners with his always-formidable forehand.

Before the start of the season Carlos Moya, Nadal’s coach, had talked about how he has been trying to teach the 32-year-old new tricks.

“I know we’ll never turn Rafa into a Federer, Raonic or Berdych, who all excel as two-shot players. But we have to try and push Rafa to come close to that, without losing the essence of his game,” Moya had said in December at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, the exhibition tournament where Nadal lost to Kevin Anderson. “Joan Forcades, Francisco Roig and I are preparing Rafa to be a more aggressive player – even more so than he has been throughout his career,” Moya had added.

For six rounds in Melbourne, Nadal was a more aggressive player than he has been throughout his career. He was hitting the down-the-line forehand at the first opportunity he got, crunching the crosscourt backhand with conviction, and rushing the net whenever he was presented with a short ball. By peppering the court with a flurry of quick, dive-bombing missiles and playing at a tempo that sometimes made it look like he was nothing more than a blur on our TV screens, Nadal dispatched a string of quality players with minimum fuss.

Tomas Berdych was bagelled in the fourth round for no fault of his own and Frances Tiafoe got a lesson of a lifetime on how to hit with precise power. But it was Tsitsipas who summed it up the best: looking dazed and confused after his loss to Nadal, he murmured, “It felt like a different dimension of tennis…I’m trying to understand, but I cannot find an explanation.”

All through these matches Nadal constantly displayed his patented defense, athleticism and foot speed as well. That banana forehand winner against Tsitsipas was just one of many ridiculous shots he hit throughout the tournament where his legs and core strength were enough to turn defence into offence. But in his eyes, it was the defence that let him down in the match against Djokovic.

“I think I was playing great during both the weeks in offensive positions,” Nadal said in his post-final press conference. “In defensive positions, I practiced what I practiced. I practiced well, very well I think, but because of the things that happened to me in terms of surgery (the ankle procedure he underwent last November)…I was not able to work that much the defensive game. I worked a lot on the offensive game, but not that much on the defensive game.”

Nadal was right about not being in the best defensive shape during the final, as he failed to do enough with the ball when he was pushed into a corner by the Serb’s forceful groundstrokes. But what Nadal also failed to do was stick to his aggressive game-plan; the moment Djokovic returned a few of his big serves and forehands with interest, the Spaniard retreated to his time-tested, loopy-crosscourt patterns.

The inside-out forehand error that he made to get broken within five minutes of the match didn’t help; how do you persist with a strategy that has put you on the back foot from the get-go?

Moya had sensed this would be a problem a month ago, as he explained the natural aversion that Nadal has to super-aggressive tennis.

“It’s not the style of play Rafa prefers, but we’re working to find a way to make that sort of matchplay fit into his comfort zone. Rafa likes to find the rhythm, although he has shown that he can play just as well when there is no such rhythm to be found,” Moya had said. “Sometimes he gets it, other times he doesn’t.”

In his presser, however, Nadal denied that his lack of forcefulness had anything to do with old habits, or with nervousness at playing such a big match in Melbourne again. He insisted that it was, instead, purely down to Djokovic’s superior, ‘quicker’ play.

“What on other days have been a serve and a ball that I can have in offensive position, today have been in defensive position. That’s not nerves. That’s things that happened quicker than what happened the previous days,” he said.

While there is obviousness in what Nadal said – Djokovic was indeed playing at a considerably higher speed – it is also possible that this day was just one of those ‘other times’ that Moya talked about. Playing out of your comfort zone is tough, especially if you are pitted against an opponent as zoned-in as Djokovic. And when you lose ground at the very outset by employing tools you are not accustomed to, your first natural reaction is to abandon those tools and revert to your old self.

Whether his apparent mental block against Djokovic was a factor in his tentativeness, and whether this lopsided defeat will erode his self-confidence even further in their future meetings, are questions that Nadal can answer only after he has fully processed the result. For now, all he could do was applaud Djokovic’s efforts, and admit that there was no shame in losing to such a flawless opponent – and that’s exactly what he did.

“He was better than me tonight,” Nadal said. “That’s the sport. We can talk a lot, but when the player did almost everything better than you, you can’t complain much. The only thing that you can say is congrats to the opponent, well done.”

Long story short: Nadal played aggressively for six rounds and retreated into his shell in the final, but the extenuating circumstances (namely, Djokovic playing in superhuman mode) suggest that the slip-up at the last hurdle was a one-off. All things considered, it is an encouraging sign that Nadal could storm through the draw with so little trouble despite not having his best defence at his command.

With more time and more match practice, that defence will likely get back to its best. And then who knows, maybe the new offensive game will also stay with him all the way through? The man himself believes it is just a matter of time.

“I have been lots of months without having the chance to practice, without having the chance to compete. And (these) have been two positive weeks. The only thing probably that I need is time and more matches,” he said in his presser.

“What I need is time, I need work, and I need more weeks like this one.”

Nadal will soon get many more weeks like this one, considering what part of the season is coming up. After the twin Masters 1000 tournaments in Indian Wells and Miami, the tour will turn to clay, the surface that Nadal has made his own over the last decade.

If his aggressive play was so effective in Melbourne, can you imagine how much more damage it can do on clay, when combined with the vicious bounce that the surface facilitates?

The truly scary part, of course, is that Nadal doesn’t even need to be extra-aggressive or add any new layers to his game on the red dirt. His legendary movement and consistency have been enough to walk all over his claycourt challengers since 2005. And if he remains fit and gets more matches under his belt over the next two months, we could be in for another Nadal Summer in Europe.

But don’t tell that to Nadal. The World No 2 is convinced, as always, that he needs to improve on all fronts to remain competitive, and he has vowed to leave no stone unturned in that regard. “I can only say one thing: I gonna keep fighting hard, I gonna keeping working hard to be a better player,” he said at the trophy presentation ceremony, giving everyone yet another inspiring quote to preserve in memory forever.

All those heartbreaks in Melbourne – the injury-ravaged campaigns and the nerve-racked finals losses – have clearly done nothing to dim Nadal’s spirit. And judging from what we saw this year, is there any doubt that he will be back in 2020 with another new dimension in his game, ready to launch a fresh assault on that elusive trophy?

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 10:36:50 IST

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