Has the plug been pulled on Nadal's power game?

Less bulky, especially in his upper body, since returning from injury, the former world No 1 has looked a shadow of his former self while struggling in London, writes Paul Newman
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The Independent Online

It is not exactly the schedule of a man struggling with his fitness. Once Rafael Nadal has finished his commitments at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London – he will be eliminated after his final group match today – the Spaniard will head for Barcelona, where he will begin practising tomorrow for next week's Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic.

Within days of the final Nadal will begin his off-season training in readiness for 2010. Before the new year he will be in the Middle East, where he will play in an exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi and the Qatar Open before flying to the Australian Open, which begins on 18 January. Within a week of the Melbourne final he will be at an indoor tournament in Rotterdam.

To hear Nadal discuss his schedule and his current form you would think there was nothing wrong with the world No 2, but his performances this week have told a different story. He points out that he has rarely had much success at this time of the year, but, while indoor hard courts do not bring the best out of him, he has looked a shadow of the man who swept all before him last year, winning the French Open, Wimbledon and Olympic gold.

Nadal has not won a title since May and in his last seven meetings with opponents ranked in the world's top eight has not won a set, let alone a match. The last few weeks have been a far cry even from the first five months of this year, during which he won the Australian Open, beating Roger Federer in a Grand Slam final for the third time in eight months.

Andre Agassi was among those who speculated whether Nadal might go on to win a calendar Grand Slam in 2009, but the Spaniard's year was torn apart following his shocking defeat to Robin Soderling in Paris at the end of May.

The question mark that has always hung over Nadal is his fitness. From his teenage days he was a physical phenomenon, his muscles bulging as he chased down every ball and outlasted opponent after opponent. His style of play, based on defence from the baseline, is more physically demanding than, say, that of Federer, who always looks to attack and finish points quickly.

His game has placed huge demands on his knees, which have caused him persistent problems. After his French Open defeat he finally gave in to the tendinitis that had been troubling him in both joints and took a break of more than two months. His US Open chances were then hampered by an abdominal injury, but he has been playing a full schedule since making his return in the middle of August.

The fact that, until now, he has reached the quarter-finals of every tournament since his comeback might suggest that he is rebuilding steadily. Indeed Nadal points out that he has enjoyed the most successful autumn of his career. However, despite the benefit of a lengthy summer break – which he has not had in the past – he seems to be lacking the destructive power that used to wear down opponents.

Physically Nadal appears less intimidating than he was, especially in his upper body. There have been suggestions that he might have been advised to lose bulk in order to relieve the burden on his knees, though Nadal insists that he has maintained the same weight in recent years. He says that any change in his appearance must be down to ditching the trademark sleeveless shirts that accentuated his muscular frame.

It has not been the easiest of times off the court for the Spaniard, who is from a close-knit family. In the summer it was reported that his parents were divorcing, although they were watching together when he played Nikolay Davydenko on Wednesday night.

Memories can be short. When Federer lost to Nadal in Melbourne earlier this year some asked whether the Swiss would ever break Pete Sampras's all-time record of Grand Slam titles, yet he went on to do so by winning the next two in succession at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Nadal, moreover, is only 23 and has time on his side.

Nevertheless, a key difference between Federer's situation then and Nadal's now is that the question marks over the world No 1 concerned his mental state and continuing hunger for success rather than his body. Nadal's desire has never been in question, but can he stand up to the physical strains imposed by his calendar?

The Spaniard says he does not need to take more time off. "I've had enough breaks this year – too many in my opinion," he said. "I'm ready to practise hard. I have motivation to play my best tennis. When you have this goal and you have this motivation, it doesn't matter if you are tired or not, so I am ready to start practising and to start playing in 2010. I don't know how far I am from my best. The important thing is that when this change happens, I'll be ready for it."

As for his playing schedule, Nadal insists that his year is dictated by the calendar. However, does he really need to begin his 2010 campaign in an exhibition event less than four weeks after the end of the 2009 season? After Australia, should he not rest rather than chase ranking points in Rotterdam? The evidence would suggest that the Spaniard needs to do everything he can to nurse his body through the months and years ahead.

Rafa on the rocks: How Nadal has fallen from grace

After winning eight titles in 2008, Nadal began the year well, winning five of his first eight tournaments – although he has struggled since then.

January

Doha QF

Australian Open W

February

Rotterdam F

March

Indian Wells W

Miami QF

April

Monte Carlo W

Barcelona W

Rome W

May

Madrid F

French Open 4R

August

Canada Masters QF

September

US Open SF

October

Beijing SF

Shanghai MastersF

November

Paris Masters SF

ATP Tour Finals RR

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