Just 18 Months ago, Rafael Nadal had defeated Serbian Djokovic in the 2010 US Open final to complete a career Golden Slam (all four majors and an Olympic gold medal). It looked likely he was going to go on a Grand Slam tear, and within a few years would surpass Federer’s record of 16 Grand Slam titles. It was difficult to see who would stop him as he was dominating the other top 4 players in the world (in the majors at least), and they in turn were set well apart from the rest of the field. Between 2007 and 2010, Nadal’s head to head against the other top four players was:
Djokovic: Nadal won 14/21 matches
Federer: Nadal won 7/12 matches
Murray: Nadal won 9/13 matches
Nadal had never lost to Djokovic in a grand slam, it was Wimbledon 2008 since he had lost to Federer in a grand slam, and Murray had just managed to get past the Spaniard once (2008 US Open Semi-Final).
So what happened? Towards the end of 2010 Djokovic cut out the pizza and embarked on a gluten-free diet, that would see his court movement reach a whole new level. Looking at Djokovic physically over the last 18 months, you can clearly see the difference in his conditioning, and this has enabled him to reach every ball just a bit earlier, and maintain perfect balance and positioning. He seems to hug the baseline, even when playing against Nadal’s huge topspin forehands, and no other player has come even close to achieving this against the Spaniard.
“When one player beats you five times it’s because today my game don’t bother him a lot,” Nadal said after his loss in the Wimbledon 2011 final.
The fact that shots hit with so much topspin don’t bother an opponent is pretty remarkable, as countless top players over the last few years have commented how difficult it is to contend with Nadal’s viscous spin and physical game. No other player in the history of tennis has hit with anywhere near the level of topspin the Spaniard consistently reaches:
Sampras: 1,800 rpm
Federer: 2,500 rpm
Nadal: 4,000 rpm
Several things could prevent Nadal adding to his current impressive haul of 10 grand slam titles. Djokovic could maintain his current level (or even improve), and Nadal may be left without an answer to it, other up and coming younger players could start beating him, Murray and Federer could start dominating him, or he could get a career ending injury.
Being just 24 years old, and having achieved such a consistent level of performance over the last 16 months, you’d have to say it is unlikely that Djokovic’s level will drop, and if anything it may well improve (a scary thought). We’re not talking about a player playing amazing tennis for a 2 week period like Del Potro did at the US Open in 2009. Novak was number 3 in the world for 4 years before taking the number 1 ranking last summer, so he’s an extremely consistent performer. He’s also got perhaps the most important tennis commodities on his side, momentum and confidence.
Even at Roland Garros where Nadal has a 45-1 win/loss record, unless Rafa can make some changes, you’d have to favour Novak to start to dominate him there as well. However, we’re not just talking about any ordinary player here. Nadal has possibly the best fighting spirit ever seen on a tennis court, and you can be sure that him and his team will be working harder than ever to find a solution to the Djokovic problem. At the start of this year, Nadal announced he had added a few grams to his racket in an attempt to get more power.
“It gives you a little bit more power. That’s all. It’s three more grams. For a few balls, for the higher balls, you can hit the ball a little bit more flat because the racquet goes faster into the ball, the racquet goes quicker.” Nadal said.
He also added that the racket didn’t seem like it felt like “his”, but it would start to over the next few months.
If Rafa’s form toward the end of the Australian open is anything to go by, it seems this change is having a very positive effect. Compared to the previous 2 grand slam losses that were relatively straightforward victories for the Serb, the Australian open was a completely different ball game. Nadal was 4-2 up in the deciding set, and serving at 30-15 missed a bread and butter backhand down the line. This was one of the rare moments in Nadal’s career when maybe his belief was not at its usual 100% level.
As far as the Novak factor goes, the upcoming clay court swing could well lay the foundations for the future head to head of these two champions. If Rafa looses his cherished Roland Garros title, you’d maybe have to say it was unlikely he would pick up more than another 3 slams during the rest of his career, giving him a career total of 13 slam titles.
Regarding up and coming young players, it’s unlikely this will be a factor for a few years in deciding the final figure of Grand Slam titles Rafa ends his career with. Of course things can change very quickly in tennis, but the mental and physical requirements of 5 set matches means it is unlikely we will see any other players break into the top 4 anytime soon.
Nadal has still maintained his dominance over Federer and Murray, and unless he makes such radical changes to his game (to try to counter Djokovic) that he loses focus of what has worked against these other guys, there is little reason to think this status quo will change.
Injury is of course another huge concern for Nadal fans, and as wear and tear takes it’s hold you’d have to say this will become more and more of a factor as time goes by. He’s 25 now, and would normally have at least another say 24 slams to contend (to take him to 31 years old), and we should hope for the game of tennis he does reach this kind of figure.
If I had to take a guess as to how many Grand Slam titles Rafa ended his career with I would say 16. If anyone can find an answer to Djokovic’s current form you’d have to back the Spanish terrier. Given that Nadal relies on momentum possibly more than any other player if he can get just one important victory over the Serb, he may well go on a winning head to head run himself. On thing’s for sure, if the guys at the top of the men’s game can remain fit, its going to be a great time to watch tennis.