As many of you already know, Rafael Nadal went down in the first round of the Australian Open to his compatriot Fernando Verdasco in five thrilling sets. This was a rematch of their semifinal battle in 2009 which also went to five sets, so I knew that this match was going to be a tough test for Nadal.
When every great athlete starts to fade from their winning ways that brought them fame and glory, the media always goes straight to the worst case scenario. The questions of retirement start flooding pages of the newspapers. As fans, we live vicariously through these larger than life figures and we struggle to watch our favorite athletes lose a step. We are witnessing Kobe Bryant’s last season and Lleyton Hewitt’s last Australian Open. I heard countless times over the past couple of years that Roger Federer, my all time favorite player, was done yet he is 35 and is still going strong as the number 2 player in the world. But, what does this all mean for Rafael Nadal?
The biggest weakness I see in Nadal’s game today is a lack of confidence. He’s shakier in the big points. His forehand is falling shorter than it needs to be, allowing his opponents to take bigger cuts at the ball and push him around the court. He’s also the type of player who needs a lot of matches under his belt before he hits his stride. This is typically what we see during the clay court season when he regains his comfort and form and dismantles everyone en-route to a French Open Title. When Nadal goes out in the first round of the Australian Open to a player like Verdasco(I think anyone would have lost to Verdasco the way he was playing on that given day), I don’t immediately jump to conclusions and say he is done; however, I do think he needs to start bring new voices into his camp to make some drastic changes to his game.
It’s a rare thing to see a player stick by the same coach for the entirety of his career. In fact, I can’t think of a single example of this occurring. Nadal has had his uncle Toni by his side as the head of operations since he first picked up a racket and I think that needs to change. I’m not saying he should can his uncle altogether, but he should look to what other players on the tour have done at critical moments in their careers. Llendl helped Murray earn his place in history with a win at Wimbledon and Becker added another dimension to Djokovic’s already near flawless game. Even Federer has had different perspectives in his coaches box over the years and while I was sad to see Edberg leave as coach, I think he was smart to bring on Ljubicic. A new coach can get Nadal to take advantage of many of the other strengths he already possesses, like his great hands at the net and his excellent two handed backhand. He needs to get used to standing closer to the baseline and shorten points. He used his serve to win free points when he won the US Open and he needs to go back to those videos and study hard. Maybe he should ask Robin Soderling what he’s doing for dinner?