When Rafael Nadal clinched his 14th Grand Slam title, the 2014 French Open, the Spaniard was well on his way to surpassing Roger Federer’s record tally of 17 major championships.
Unfortunately for Nadal fans, the southpaw has hit a roadblock since that victory in Paris, having suffered a series of early Grand Slam exits in the recent past.
Besides persisting injury woes, Nadal’s downfall has been caused by a number of other reasons. For starters, the rest of the male players in the circuit are following the example set by him. Like Nadal, they are now gym rats who can compete with the Spanish Bull, stroke-for-stroke, and can endure those painstakingly long rallies.
Why Federer lasted longer…
Players are getting faster and stronger. And that doesn’t bode well for a player like Nadal, who is yet to turn 30. On the other hand, Federer has been able to shine well into his 30s because he doesn’t depend on his physical prowess as much.
When Nadal first started dominating, the sport had never before seen a player like him. Nadal would beat his opponents more through his speed, strength and stamina, rather than finesse or technical skill. Now, that is in no way indicating that Nadal lacks skills but he would invariably beat opponents by out-lasting them on the court.
Nadal did develop an unstoppable backhand but his service game always left more to be desired. This was on display during his first round exit against Fernando Verdasco yesterday. During crucial junctures of that match, Rafael Nadal failed to bank on his serve to bail him out of break points.
Forget about the Grand Slams, Nadal has managed to win only three ATP Tour titles since 2015. It is the joint fewest titles he has won in a season since 2004, when he was a 17-year-old teenager.
Nadal, hailed as the King of Clay, couldn’t get past the quarterfinals of the French Open last year. If anything, that was the first indicator that the downfall is underway. Later this Spring, he will have another opportunity to win a French Open, a tournament he has won a record 9 times. But realistically, the odds are against him.
After suffering only his second first-round exit in a Grand Slam, Nadal didn’t shy away from acknowledging that he had lost a step or two. “He (Verdasco) played better than me. He played more aggressive than me. He took more risks than me, and he won. Probably he deserved it,” Nadal said after the 7-6 (8-6) 4-6 3-6 7-6 (4-7) 6-2 defeat. (Watch Full Press Conference Above)
Nadal was hoping to have a bounce back season after a disappointing 2015. “This year was a completely different story. I have been playing and practising great and working so much. It is tough when you work so much and arrive at a very important event and you’re going out too early. But at the same time, I know I did everything that I can to be ready for it. It was not my day. Let’s keep going. That’s the only thing.”
Unless there is a miraculous turnaround, it’s safe to assume that Rafael Nadal would finish his career with 14 Grand Slam victories.