Rafael Nadal has not always been at ease on a grass court but managed to win his first grass-court title since 2010 by lifting the Mercedes Cup in Stuttgart. Bouncing back from his French Open disappointment, the top seeded Spaniard triumphed 7-6 (7-3), 6-3 against Serbia’s Viktor Troicki in just under an hour and a half, winning the $118,000 first prize.
It was his 66th ATP Tour title & 4th title on grass, but just his second in a year where the former world No. 1 has dropped to 10th in the rankings. He won Wimbledon for the second time in 2010 and lost for the third time in a final there the subsequent year, but has not gone passed fourth round since.
While most of the top men’s players took a pause after Roland Garros, the 29-year-old went straight back into the fray at the German tournament which he won in 2005 and 2007 — this season it switched from clay to a grass surface and moved to after the French grand slam. After winning in Stuttgart, Nadal headed to Britain for the Queen’s Club Championships (Aegon Championships) in London, the event which Nadal won in 2008 before beating Federer at Wimbledon in perhaps Tennis’ greatest battle. He was ousted in the 1R by Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov (ranked 79th), losing 3-6 7-6 (8-6) 4-6 in two hours and 13 minutes in front of an audience that included José Mourinho and the former king of Spain, Juan Carlos.
Nadal’s fall from the pinnacle of the game has been at a ferocious pace. With just 2 titles and no Grand Slam finals to show-off this season, the Spaniard has looked more vulnerable and susceptible to embarrassing losses.
Apart from his physical struggles and injury-plagued career, his on-court form in 2015 has been far less steady than what we are used to. He lost half-dozen matches on his beloved clay this season and went 21-6 on the red dirt this year. Compare that with 292-14 record from 2005-2014, this yardstick comparison clearly illustrates that “RAFA is STRUGGLING in 2015”.
Indifferent form this year
After being stripped of his French Open crown and losing only for the second time in 72 matches in Paris, Nadal has plummeted to 10th in the ATP rankings, the first time his rank is a 2-digit number since 2005. Nadal will try to use grass as a catalyst in his quest to regain his lost mojo. His performance over the next month on the lawns will decide whether he can come back from such a situation.
Grass has perennially been Rafa’s Achilles heel over his entire career taking a huge toll on his knees. In 2006, Nadal made it to his 1st non-clay major final in Wimbledon losing to rival Roger Federer in 4 sets. A year later, he lost a 5 setter to Federer in the Wimbledon Final but did take confidence from the fact that he managed to push the 5-time Champion to a deciding set. Then his moment arrived in 2008.
After winning Queens Club, he managed to hold off Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon Final in arguably the greatest match of all-time. Although he had to withdraw from the 2009 Championships because of tendinitis in both of his knees, he came back in 2010 to win his second title at the All-England Club before losing to Serb Novak Djokovic in the 2011 finals. Ever since his final loss in 2011, he is just 5-5 on the lawns (before last week’s Mercedes Cup) which includes 3 bamboozling losses at the All England Club.
Nadal’s woes on grass
In 2012, after winning a record 7th Roland Garros title, he lost to German Philipp Kohlschreiber in Halle which served as a bad warning for Wimbledon. In Wimbledon, he was shocked by unheralded Czech Lukas Rosol, a player ranked 100th in the world then. This turned out to one of the biggest upsets in Grand Slam history and was the first time since the Wimbledon 2005 championships that Nadal had failed to progress past the 2nd round of a Grand Slam tournament.
This was the beginning of his miseries on grass. The following year, he skipped the grass court tune-up events and suffered another shocking loss to Belgian Steve Darcis (ranked 135th) in the first round at Wimbledon 2013. This was his 1st ever loss in the opening round of a Major.
His struggles continued in 2014, as he lost his 3rd consecutive match on the surface to heavy-hitting German Dustin Brown in his opening match at Halle. Although he survived four-set battles in each of the first three rounds, his 2014 Wimbledon run came to an unforeseen end against big-hitting Aussie teenager Nick Kyrgios (Nadal was World No.1 and Kyrgios was ranked 143 places below him). The most bewildering element of those results was he lost to low-ranked, unheralded players who were supposedly way below his league.
A tough transition from clay
Nadal who began his career as a clay-court specialist managed to scale the lawns of Wimbledon by defeating Federer in 2008’s fiesta. He was being compared to Swede legend Bjorn Borg after completing his 2nd Channel Slam in 2010 (Borg won 3 consecutive Channel Slams 1978-1980). After making the final every time he entered between 2006 & 2011, he’s struggling to even to make it to 2nd week now.
The switch from clay to grass is possibly the most difficult transition in tennis and even more laborious for Nadal. He’s forced to sacrifice his fierce defensive skills to a more subtle approach and better footwork. He loses the punch in his top-spin shots on the low-bouncing turf and allows big hitters to hit more aggressively. When the lawns are still lush green at the start of Wimbledon, Nadal’s the most susceptible.
The courts operate at a ferocious pace, and the ball skids more because of the slipperiness, making offensive-minded opponents even more dangerous against him. The only way he can end his recent lull on grass is to make it to the 2nd week at Wimbledon as the baseline grass is chewed off to dust and plays relatively slower giving Nadal more time to pace his game.
Don’t discount Rafa’s chances
With his victory in Stuttgart, Nadal’s looking to build the lost momentum on the surface. He’ll need to be extremely focussed and sharp once Wimbledon kicks off. Due to his tumble in rankings and Wimbledon’s unique seeding system, Nadal will possibly have to go through Stan, Andy, Roger and Novak to lift a 3rd Wimbledon title. “A NIGHTMARISH DRAW awaits perhaps”.
Nadal is undoubtedly at a crossroads in his professional career and is finally succumbing to the inevitable aging progression – an undisputed force which even the great RAFA will not conquer.
Yet people cannot write him off. The Mallorcan Matador is one of the fiercest competitors sport has ever seen. These defeats and painful losses will only fuel him to practice harder and prove all his detractors wrong.
A strong performance at Wimbledon may just be the perfect medicine to cure his recent infirmities and reignite his already historic career.