Thanks for all your comments on my previous post. I really enjoyed reading how you became Fedfans and I hope to see more comments soon. In this post I want to look at Nadal’s future in tennis. Can he still beat Roger’s slam record? Can he figure out how to beat Djokovic again? These are some of the questions I want to explore in this post. At age 25 Nadal has now been a professional for ten years, after having turned pro in 2001. That is a long time in the game for someone who has a taxing game style like him. Never in the history of the sport have we seen someone expend so much energy on a tennis court. It is just unreal how year after year he keeps grinding down opponents and play the most grueling physical matches. In 2009 he went through a slump after losing to Roger in the Madrid finals.
He was really struggling and it looked like his taxing game style had finally caught up with him, the same way it did with the likes of Courier, Chang, and Hewitt. At this point he had won six slams, and personally I started writing him off. It just seemed probable that he was starting to burn out. I mean he had lost his Roland Garros crown and started losing all over the place after that. But of course he was far from done, as his best year was still ahead of him in 2010. Roger was struggling and Djokovic had not found his best level yet. So there wasn’t much competition for Nadal on his way to completing the career slam at the 2010 US Open. I never thought with his one dimensional game he would be able to complete the career slam, but he made it look easy. He was now on nine slams and it didn’t look like anyone would be able to stop him for some time to come.
He was also starting to close in on Roger’s slam record. At the start of 2011 he had an opportunity to win four slams in a row, something even Roger has never been able to do. But thankfully he lost to Ferrer in the quarters of the Oz Open. Somehow I felt that winning four slams in a row would be a tall order for him, and I was relieved to see that my gut feel turned out to be right. Djokovic won in Australia and was starting to make some waves. In Indian Wells and Miami Nadal was still in top form, making the final of both and only losing out to Djokovic on both occasions. It was two telling losses but no one actually believed that Djokovic would threaten Nadal on his favorite clay. When Djokovic beat Nadal in the final of Madrid it was not that big a surprise, since he played Nadal close there in 2009 at the high altitude.
But no one really thought he could beat Nadal on Rome’s slow clay. Djokovic however surprised everyone as he beat Nadal in straight sets. It now seemed there was a good possibility that Djokovic could dethrone Nadal in Paris. But is was not be, as Roger defeated Djokovic in an epic semi-final and thereby saving Nadal. Nadal went on to win his tenth major over a player he is used to beating in slam finals. Things worked out well for him and he went into the grass court season with loads of confidence. He was probably the favorite to win Wimbledon, but got denied in a fifth consecutive final by that man Djokovic. It was a crushing defeat, and as the US hard court season got under way it seemed like his confidence had taken a hit. Yet when the US Open rolled around he almost miraculously made the final again, destroying all opposition in his path.
But once again he would be denied by Djokovic in a brutal four set encounter. This means Djokovic cost Nadal two slams and four Masters Series titles in 2011 so far. Nadal has met his match. I mean he was still playing very well, beating everyone else on tour with ease. It hasn’t been a case of Nadal’s level dropping, but rather the fact that Djokovic 2.0 is so good and at the same time a bad match up for him. Aside from the early rounds of the French Open and the beginning of the US hard court season it did not look like the losses to Djokovic messed up his confidence much. Will it happen now that he lost to Djokovic in yet another slam final? I won’t bet on it. Having said that, the indoor season is coming up and it is Nadal’s worst part of the season. So it will be interesting to see how he fares.
Anyway I think he will try to finish this year strongly and then prepare for 2012 as hard as ever. Nadal won’t lie down that is for sure. It is just not in his mental make up to give up. He is at his best when people start writing him off. I have learned this the hard way. Whenever I have written him off he found ways to reinvent himself and come back stronger than ever. Having said that, he now faces a bigger challenge than he has ever faced before. Djokovic has properly owned him in 2011. In six matches he hasn’t made any headway in finding a way to beat Djokovic. In the US Open final, after losing the first two sets, it looked like he was trying to be more aggressive. This pay some dividends as he won the third set, but not after having expended so much energy that he had nothing left in the tank for the fourth set.
Not even an injury could stop Djokovic from serving Nadal a bread stick in the fourth. Nadal had given absolutely everything in that match, but was still found wanting by a large margin. As much as I respect Nadal’s ability to adapt, I feel like beating Djokovic is a huge problem for him. It just isn’t a good match up for him. Djokovic’s defense is on par with Nadal these days, and he doesn’t get tired anymore either. Nadal’s usual tactic of pounding the right hander’s backhand into submission with his forehand is completely futile against Djokovic. Djokovic has the best backhand in the business and his defense off that side is out of this world as well. Neither pace, spin, nor angle bothers him on that side. His backhand is indestructible. So this pretty much takes away Nadal’s A game and main strength.
How do you beat Djokovic 2.0? The only person who have beaten Djokovic in 2011 is the GOAT himself, and he did so in masterful fashion. To beat Djokovic you must have excellent variation, the ability to play first strike tennis, and a very competent net game. Roger uses his backhand slice to great effect against Djokovic. He used his slice to keep Djokovic off balance, and if he gets a short ball he rips his forehand for a winner or follows it to the net. You can’t give Djokovic a chance to settle into a rhythm from the back of the court. You have keep him guessing and use calculated risk. Can Nadal do this? I don’t see how. He doesn’t have a good enough serve to help him get through his service games with ease or to save him when in trouble. He doesn’t have a great slice to keep Djokovic off balance.
He doesn’t have good enough volleys to take Djokovic on at the net. He is not good at playing first strike tennis either. His strokes are loopy and he prefers playing defensive instead of attacking tennis. He is not comfortable playing first strike tennis. You can see for yourself that Djokovic is the worst possible match up for Nadal, just like Nadal is the the worst possible match up for Roger. If anyone can solve this riddle it is probably Nadal, but how exactly is he going to do it? Nadal will never have Roger’s serve, slice, volleys, or ability to play first strike tennis. You can’t change that much as a player, especially not at this stage of his career. He has already improved his backhand, his serve, and his volleys. He has pretty much maximized everything he has at his disposal. He doesn’t have the ability to change much more.
He is simply not as talented as Roger. This is the problem for Nadal. He is ultimately a one dimensional player. You are only gifted with a certain amount of talent, and once you maximized it that is it. Nadal doesn’t have unlimited talent like Roger. This is why I believe Roger is the true GOAT. Roger can adapt to all surfaces and conditions. He would have been dominant in any era. Sampras played in an era when the conditions were fast which suited his serve-and-volley game perfectly. Sampras was one dimensional himself. He could not adapt to slow surfaces, as evidenced by the fact that he could never win the French Open. Sampras would have struggled a lot more in the current era where surfaces have been slowed down so much, and volleying has become much more difficult due to the pace with which the players hit the ball these days.
Now lets do the same for Nadal and put him in Sampras’ era where conditions were a lot faster than these days and racquet and strings have not evolved so far as it has today. Nadal would have found it very hard to win on the fast, low-bouncing grass of Wimbledon and the fast US Open courts. I seriously doubt he would have won the career slam. Racquet and string technology has also allowed him to hit the ball with unreal amounts of power and spin. I think it is safe to say that Nadal would have had a harder time of it in the 90’s. Roger on the other hand could adapt to both eras without a shadow of a doubt. He likes slow clay and would have been able to win the French Open in the 90’s. It is also obvious that he would have dominated the low-bouncing grass of the 90’s as evidenced by the fact that he beat the king of grass at the 2001 Wimbledon when the grass was still low-bouncing.
Roger may have been even more dominant on the 90’s grass, because I don’t see him losing to the likes of Nadal on that surface. The point is that Roger can adapt to either slow or fast conditions. He is a multi-dimensional player. He can play from the back or he can serve-and-volley. He is a naturally attacking player but his defense is superb as well. He is just the complete tennis player. This is where I believe Nadal falls short in the GOAT equation. I think he is about on Sampras’ level. Close to Roger but not quite there. Roger just have that edge which makes him the prime candidate for GOAT. So in the end I think Nadal won’t quite have the tools to deal with Djokovic in the future. The match up is just very bad for him and we have seen that match up can be too difficult to overcome even for someone as talented as Roger.
This doesn’t mean Djokovic can afford to slack. I have seen some things in the US Open final which he can improve upon against Nadal. For instance he often has Nadal on the run way behind the base line, but instead of coming in and putting away the easy volley, he hangs back and allows Nadal more chances to get back in the rally. Also in the third set I felt he was not being aggressive enough. He could have been more dominant with his ground strokes. If Djokovic works at these things Nadal will find him even harder to beat. My guess is that Nadal will work as hard as ever in the off season and try to come up with a solution in 2012. That won’t guarantee him any success against Djokovic though. If Djokovic maintains his 2011 level I think Nadal will continue to get owned. And of course that makes tennis interesting for me.
Next year is a big year for Nadal if he wants to remain in the run for GOAT status. He is currently 25, and history has shown that after 26 it becomes very hard to win slams. History has also shown that after 600 matches a player starts to decline. And given that Nadal has the most taxing game style in the history of the sport, you would certainly expect that he will not be exempt from these historical facts. Nadal already passed 600 matches this year. How much longer can he keep up this grueling grind? Like I said, I think 2012 will be big for him. He has already passed 600 matches and is turning 26 in June next year. I think he needs to win at least two slams to stay on track for beating Roger’s record. But that means he needs at least four more slams after turning 26 just to equal Roger’s record. It would defy logic if he is able to win 4-5 more slams after the age of 26 with the miles he has on his body.
So actually he needs to win three slams next year. I just find it hard to see that happening. He is still only losing to Djokovic at this point, but it must take a mental toll on him to keep losing to Djokovic and not making any headway in beating him. There are also new players coming up who are starting to threaten in slams. Guys like Tsonga and Del Potro have both destroyed Nadal in slams and they will for sure be a force to be reckoned with in 2012. Hell, even Murray could threaten Nadal in 2012. You know I don’t have much faith in Murray, but he has had a very consistent year in the slams in 2011 and will be looking to make his mark at slams again in 2012. No slam is a guaranteed title for Nadal anymore. Djokovic has shown that he can easily beat Nadal on clay, and Roland Garros is not a lock for Nadal anymore.
He got lucky this year when Roger took care of Djokovic for him, or he might well have found himself dethroned in Paris and wiining no slams. The French Open is the slam that is missing for Djokovic before he can complete the career slam, so I think he will target it next year. If he dethrones Nadal there it will be a big blow to him. The ownage of Djokovic over him would be utterly complete. There would be nowhere left for him to hide, and I for one would love that to happen. If that happens Nadal may win no slams in 2012. But for now Nadal is still a threat at all the slams. Realistically I think he still has a chance to win the French, and then he could possibly win Wimbledon too. So I think at most he can win two slams. Anything more than that would be a big surprise. But I also think he can end up winning no slams if Djokovic beats him in Paris.
Roger won five slams after he turned 26, but given the vast difference between the playing styles of him and Nadal, and the fact that Nadal peaked way earlier, you would not expect Nadal to come close to that. Nadal has to win six slams just to equal Roger from next year on, and logically that just wouldn’t make sense. If Nadal keeps winning slams after he turns 26 then something is very weird. I mean you just can’t keep defying logic without creating suspicion, especially in a sport where the doping regulations leaves a lot to be desired. Logic tells me that next year will be the year where Nadal starts declining. he hasn’t shown any signs of decline this year yet, only losing to Djokovic when it mattered. I know it is not wise to count Nadal out, but if he reinvents himself somehow again next year and wins 2-3 slams I’m going to start getting suspicious.
I think he could still win the French next year and possibly one more slam. But he needs more than that to stay on course for Roger’s slam record. And if he wins three slams next year I’m gonna start getting very suspicious. Here is an interesting piece of information for you: In 1981 Borg lost to Mcenroe in four sets in the Wimbledon final as well as in four sets in the US Open final, after which he retired at the age of 26. You can see the similarities between his 1981 season and Nadal’s 2011 season. They both play a similar game style as well. I don’t see Nadal retiring next year though. I think he will give it one more big push, and 2012 will be a crucial season for him. To remain in the hunt for GOAT status he must win at least two slams. If he wins only the French it won’t be enough. He will start declining after 26 and he may not win another slam, which would leave him on 11 slams.
If he wins two slams next year he could still reach something like 14 slams and tie Sampras. If he wins three slams then he would still be in the hunt to become the GOAT, but something would be rotten in the state of Denmark. And if he wins four slams then he will be the GOAT, but then we can pretty much assume that he is doping. So in the end I predict that Nadal will win 1-2 slams next year. If he win two slams however it means Djokovic could win a maximum of two as well, and that would mean we would have no new slam winners next year. That is possible, but I feel like Roger, Del Potro, Tsonga, and Murray will all be pushing hard for a slam too. I feel it is more likely that one of those players will win a slam, that Djokovic will win two slams, and that Nadal will win one slam. I also feel like it is more like that Djokovic will win three slams and Nadal one, rather than them splitting slams.
So I think it is more likely that Nadal will win one slam rather than two. And in the long run I think he will not be able to challenge Roger’s record. All logic points to that, but then again Nadal’s career has never made much logical sense….