It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Anyone who watched him win his first Wimbledon title in 2008, lit only by camera flashes and the briefest sliver of daylight wouldn’t have predicted that the lawns of SW19 would hold more heartbreak than glory in the future. Seven years ago, Wimbledon was where he dethroned the most regal of kings and seemed to be ready to expand his empire from Roland Garros – yet, on Thursday, Rafael Nadal fell to a player ranked below 100 at Wimbledon for the fourth straight year.
This was far from Nadal’s first disappointment at Wimbledon. In what became a harbinger for the injury woes that would plague his post-2008 career, Nadal withdrew from the tournament in 2009, halting what was supposed to be his victory lap after toppling Federer the year before. And, in each of the last three years, he lost to Lukas Rosol, Steve Darcis, and a then-unknown Nick Kyrgios. Yet, each time there was an explanation for it – the knees couldn’t take the bending on the grass, a guy got in the zone, or Rafa wasn’t match tough. But, with a Roland Garros trophy in his pocket before each of those disappointments, it was easy to write it off to the idiosyncrasies of grass.
Yet, this year’s loss to Dustin Brown feels different. This was not Rafa’s body letting him down. And, while Brown certainly seized his moment, this was not a match Rafa could not win.
Rather, it was tennis’ greatest problem solver unable to crack a riddle much easier than the ones he’d already figured out in the past. One of the best competitors in the game – a player whose calling card has been excellence under pressure, failing to perform when he needed to. And, he had looked the same throughout the clay court season, and in his meek quarterfinal loss to Novak Djokovic at Roland Garros. So, the question becomes, where does he go from here?
Rafa’s Big Four compatriots have all faced slumps in recent years. Roger Federer, whose initial fall from the top at the hands of Nadal reduced him to public tears at the 2009 Australian Open final, has bounced back time and time again– rebounding in 2009 to win the elusive French Open title and to surpass Pete Sampras’ Grand Slam total at Wimbledon, and continuing to win titles, thrill crowds with impossible hot shots (including Thursday’s tweener-lob), and to play deep into majors frequently. Federer’s decline from the lofty heights of his prime has been merciful – rather than falling with a thud, he has managed to float back to the top of the game. While Federer is loathe to discuss any work he puts into his game, an eyeball test shows that he’s clearly lost weight, likely to help his movement, and he subsequently changed rackets and brought in coaching assistance from Paul Annacone and then Stefan Edberg to continue to evolve his game.
Novak Djokovic has been open about his efforts to mold himself into the juggernaut he is today. Long in the shadow of Federer and Nadal, Djokovic strove for years to be taken seriously, and to surpass his more famous rivals. From yoga, to self-help books, to the hire of Boris Becker, Djokovic has worked to become mentally and physically unbreakable, and has largely succeeded. While his loss to Stan Wawrinka at the French Open suggests that the pressure of the biggest moments may take away his edge, Djokovic has shown himself to be willing to shake things up to make progress.
Andy Murray is, perhaps, the epitome of progress. His run to the Olympic gold medal and two Grand Slam titles with Ivan Lendl ushered in the age of celebrity coaches, and his recent partnership with Amelie Mauresmo has become newsworthy not so much for her gender as for the results Murray has garnered in 2015, after some dismal performances at the beginning of their partnership.
Yet, unlike his Big Four colleagues, Rafael Nadal is very much a creature of routine and has rejected calls for change. From the perfectly lined up water bottles, to the careful run to the baseline avoiding the lines to start the warmup, Nadal has used his idiosyncratic routines to bring comfort on the court. In a way, it’s understandable. For such a natural athlete, Rafael Nadal’s game is anything but natural. Starting with the switch to his left hand as a youth, Rafa has marched the path to success by pushing himself to play against some of his most basic natural tendencies. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of discipline for him to make his game work at its highest level. When success requires that much struggle, surrounding oneself with the familiar softens the edges a bit.
In the past, Rafa has been able to dig within himself to launch comebacks and dominate for a season, or at least for the clay court swing. But each comeback has a cost on Rafa’s inner reserves, and this time he has not returned with the mental and physical firepower that propelled him back before. So, the question becomes, what will he be willing do to rebound? Family loyalty and aversion to change make it unlikely that he would supplant Uncle Toni with a childhood hero, like Federer did with Edberg, or a more like-minded voice, like Murray and Mauresmo. And it’s hard to imagine him in the self-help aisle at a bookstore anytime soon.
But it’s harder to imagine Rafa fading away without figuring out this riddle. He may charge forward with another comeback, but the cost of each comeback is mounting. It’s time that he really prioritize what matters to him most, career-wise, and focus his year towards those goals. For now, all we can do is wait, and hope that he finds his fight once again – the sport is richer with his competitive fire in it.