It’s Hard to Be King: Rafa’s Wimbledon Woes

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.

5 Responses

  1. whoopsie daisy
    whoopsie daisy July 3, 2014 at 8:23 pm |

    this is a good-ass article.

  2. A-phat
    A-phat July 3, 2014 at 10:48 pm |

    Yes. Sublimely good-ass. Indeed.

  3. JoAnn
    JoAnn July 4, 2014 at 10:20 am |

    This is a refreshing article, clean reporting and is appreciated. The media gets way too harsh, one day an athelite is adorned, the next scorned I often mute the broadcasters because they are so judgemental and with tennis as each point can topple the tables they become fickle at best. This article was realistic, it is sobbering to realize that Rafa is at that point in his career that he will feel the pressures of the hunted, but as Hx does repeat itself in various ways Rafa will continue to succeed. This pressure will be the fuel to ignite his game, which is now mature and wiser, and power his passion to give us, his loyal fans his best tennis yet. Vamos Rafa!

  4. Pavan
    Pavan July 4, 2014 at 1:33 pm |

    Well said….beautifully analyzed. For the first time on media someone had really weighted the comments and analysis of top players rather than supporting their favorite players. I am convinced with this article though I am a huge Nadal fan……
    Keep going with such positive articles…..

  5. Luckystar
    Luckystar July 7, 2014 at 2:37 am |

    I would think that Rafa has at least one more Wimbledon title in him. He won’t win that much on grass the way Fed wins, but he’s good enough to win some on grass. Djokovic slips and falls his way to two Wimbledon titles but he has a great game to win; Rafa certainly moves better than Djokovic on grass and he has a good enough game to win too.

    I feel the reason why Rafa couldn’t do well this year at Wimbledon was due to him getting older and feeling the toll during and after the clay season, and couldn’t turn around quick enough on grass, did badly at Halle with only one match there for a warm up. His 2012/2013 were due more to his knee issues than his abilities on grass, having the momentum after winning the fourth set vs Rosol in 2012, only to be stopped for the roof closing and allowing Rosol to regroup, rest and came out all guns blazing. Going forward, if he still wants to win Wimbledon, I think he should cut down on his schedule on clay, maybe drops one tournament so that he can conserve some energy for the short grass season. The extra week given for grass come next year will serve Rafa well, for he’s the one who’s usually playing at the last Sunday at the FO.

    I do feel that Rafa was lacking in confidence on grass, having played so little on grass these past three years. I was surprised that Rafa didn’t play like the way he played at the FO final, ie using more of his DTL FH, by redirecting his CC shots to his DTL shots. His FHDTL shots are still his most lethal shots, or he could play the one two punch tennis on grass the way he played at Montreal last year. I feel that Kyrgios match was a winnable one, had Rafa held his nerve, served a good first serve during SP in the third set tiebreak. The longer the tiebreak went, the more chances of Rafa winning it.

    As long as Rafa’s knees and back are not hurting, has enough energy left after the clay season, playing the grass court game on grass (ie playing shorter more aggressive points, mixing in some net play, nice volleying, good slices, serving well and making good use of his serves and his passing shots), he’ll be able to win on grass, big hitter or not.

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