By Anusha Rasalingam
Rafael Nadal’s history at Wimbledon has taken a curious turn following his epic final with Roger Federer in 2008. Sidelined by his chronic knee problems, he didn’t play in 2009, only to return in 2010 and win his second title. In 2011, he lost in the final – the first of three consecutive Grand Slam finals he would lose to Novak Djokovic. And then it really gets weird – in 2012 he lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round, and then fell to Steve Darcis in the first round last year. Yet, Rafa’s loss to Nick Kyrgios this year felt different than his last two early exits from SW19. For the first time in his career, Rafa really looked the part of the veteran, attempting to fend off the attacks of a younger, confident rival who bounded across the court and relished the opportunity to take it to Nadal.
From 2005 to 2008, Rafael Nadal was prince to Roger Federer’s king, but an impudent prince at that. Even though Nadal routinely beat Federer on clay, Federer still reigned over the grass and hard court seasons. This arrangement suited the temperaments of both men – Federer enjoyed flying above his peers with his skillful displays, and Nadal embraced the battle to reach the top, conquering Federer, grass and hard courts along the way. Even though he was only in his 20s at the time, Federer was cast in the role of the veteran defending his turf from Nadal for virtually all of his reign at the top.
After finally pushing past Federer, it was assumed that Nadal would run the tables. Those plans were thwarted by two things: his body and Novak Djokovic. Indeed, after conquering Federer once again at the 2009 Australian Open, Nadal lost the only match he’s ever lost at Roland Garros to Robin Soderling, and then spent the rest of the year rehabbing his chronic knee injuries. He re-emerged in 2010, and won three Slams, only to be on the losing end of three Slam finals to Novak Djokovic during the Serb’s white-hot run in 2011.
Yet, in struggling against Djokovic, Nadal found his old self. Figuring out the Djokovic puzzle, while frustrating, brought out the skills that Nadal used to conquer Mount Federer. And, being the underdog suited Nadal’s appetite for suffering and battle. Not surprisingly, Nadal has largely found the answers against Djokovic, defeating him at the all of the Grand Slam finals where they have met since the 2012 Australian Open.
But it is Wimbledon where the Nadal armor has shown its first gaps. Of the 18 Grand Slams he has played since his injury layoff in 2009, Nadal has made the quarterfinals or better of 15 of them — playing in 12 finals. The exceptions? Wimbledon 2012, 2013, and 2014. In some ways, this is not a surprise – grass court tennis blunts Nadal’s powerful topspin and quickens points, both of which hurt Nadal. And, while the knees have not been discussed in a while, the bending required to handle the low bounces can’t help his cause. While Rosol and Darcis were journeymen who captured lightning in a bottle in defeating Nadal, Kyrgios is the harbinger of Nadal’s next battle – holding his own against the next set of young guns.
Time will only tell whether Nick Kyrgios lives up to the hyperbolic predictions that follow a convincing upset. But, what remains certain is that there will be, and already are, other young, energetic, ambitious players looking to hunt Nadal the way Nadal hunted Federer. Over time, in the years past his 2004-2007 prime, Federer has become the fighter he never needed or wanted to be before. The question now is – can Nadal adapt from being the hunter to the hunted?
Nadal has always cast himself as the underdog – sometimes to the point of absurdity, and it has served him well. But as he faces the next wave of brash fighters looking to push him to the sidelines, he will have to fight them off just as Federer held him off for so many years. While he may be able continue his dominance at Roland Garros for a while, and even on the hard courts, Wimbledon is where he will feel the pressure the most. It will be interesting to see how Nadal handles the challenge – but, if history is any example, he’ll figure out a way.