Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Nadal's Best Decision of the Year...



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Rafael Nadal's best match of 2012 might have been the one he didn't play. So, in that sense, it wasn't a match at all—it was more of an executive decision. Whatever it was, it was huge.

Allow me to take you back two months in time, back when Rafael Nadal was spending most of his time in Novak Djokovic's back pocket. After seven straight losses to the Serb, including three in Grand Slam finals, it wasn't a stretch to assume that Nadal might be suffering permanent damage from all the thrashings he'd taken at the hands of Djokovic. We'd seen this before with Federer, and as great as Federer still is, there has always been the stigma that he's carried around with him since Rafa picked him up and put him in his pocket: in a big match with Nadal, Federer will lose.

It's different for Nadal and Djokovic, because they are the same age, but the scenarios were starting to look eerily similar. Djokovic had clearly taken up residence in Nadal's kitchen and he was eating all of Nadal's favorite home-cooked meals. Pasta y Gambas. Late-night sweets. Swigging from a milk container with the fridge door open and no shirt on...

But just when it looked like Djokovic was going to rain on Rafa's parade in perpetuity, Nadal and his camp pulled the ultimate switcheroo. 

Faced with the prospect of playing Andy Murray in the grueling heat on a hard court in Miami just to have a chance to end his seven-match losing streak against Djokovic in the final, Nadal and his team weighed the consequences and elected to forgo what to them seemed like small potatoes.

Next thing you know, Nadal was apologizing to the fans and the event for not being able to make it. He gathered up what was left of his confidence and flew back to Majorca to get the stench of all that hard court tennis out of his clothes. He went to his kitchen to eat some Pasta y Gambas. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. Novak won Miami and Nadal still hadn't beaten him, but something had changed.

Taking a cue from wise military strategists of yesteryear, Nadal and his Uncle Toni had decided that fighting an all-out war on two fronts was not the way to go. Maybe another time, when Nadal had greater confidence, when Nadal had greater fitness, or when Djokovic himself was not so cocksure. But not now. Clay was going to be the remedy, just as it had been in 2010, when Nadal snapped a long title drought and went on a title-gobbling tear that left him three matches from a Rafa Slam.

So, in the middle of spring, while his arch rival was gunning for the Miami title, Nadal was already thinking about the clay. He needed to fight this war on his terms.

To some, it reeked of cowardice. How could Nadal not want another shot at Djokovic? He was so close in Australia. Had he gone soft? Was his mind so bruised by his new status as Djokovic's whipping boy that he had lost his fight? Was this the beginning of the end for the mighty Majorcan?

No, no, no.

As it turns out, Nadal's health wasn't bad—at least not as bad as the media was speculating—he just wanted it to be perfect, so he could take Djokovic down on the clay.

In similar fashion to the methodical tactical approach that Nadal has always taken to his on-court battles, Nadal needed to match his strength with Djokovic's weakness off-court as well. Since Djokovic didn't have any weaknesses, Nadal needed more than ever to know his strength. Facing Djokovic in Miami on another hard court was not the way to go about things. Nadal and his team did the smart thing. They decided that the best way to end Djokovic's reign of terror was to bring the battle back to the clay.

Nadal, who had kicked and punched his way to near exhaustion against Djokovic in Australia, was so close to Djokovic at that point. Most players would have taken that shot in Miami, laid it all on the line in the sweltering heat, but not Nadal. It is this type of big-picture thinking that has allowed Nadal to construct his giant cache of Grand Slam trophies. In the past, he has spent a great deal of time and energy proving to the world that he was more than a clay-court player. Now, at 26, Nadal has recognized that there is value in proving to the world that he's a great clay-court player all over again.

Not only has it allowed him to win a few battles with Djokovic in the last month, it might allow him to win the war. More importantly, it's enabled Nadal to find and embrace that spiritual element that has always colored his game when he is at his best.

Clay is a homecoming for Nadal, and it always will be. As he moves into his late twenties over the next few years, expect this to be a recurring theme.

Nadal can win on any surface—he's proven that—but you get the feeling that for him there is nothing sweeter than winning on clay. Of course, losing would be that much harder to stomach, but now that Rafa is back on track, this year's French Open is a war that Nadal is very likely to win.

3 comments:

  1. I do hope this strategy starts to pay dividends. Monte Carlo was a very important mental breakthrough for Nadal but Djokovic clearly was not there emotionally as he was grieving the death of his grandfather. Rome was a more convincing win. Now with the rain delays at RG12, Nadal needs to re-think his strategy and get that confidence back. Djokovic takes risks when he is losing and it usually pays off. Against anyone else, Rafa would own a rally. Not with Djokovic (for now). Hit flat, keep the points short. I hope Uncle Toni is doing his thing :)

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  2. And the end the war won by nadal and his team.. congratulation.. now they will go to next war zone.. wimbledon.

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