Over the next two weeks, the first serve series will be previewing our top male and female players and top returnees as we build up to the first grand slam of the year. We’ll analyze what they’ve got going for them and what they need to do to be successful in 2018.
A warm Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our readers! We hope the break was as refreshing for you, as it was for us. How did you cope with the tennis withdrawal symptoms? Don’t be shy. We know you had them! We sure did! Well not to fear. The tennis season is back on track and we’ve already seen some major star power take to the courts this week – we’ll get to that in a separate article.
We kick off the first serve series by focusing our Hawkeye lens on the current ATP World Tour number one player, Rafael Nadal.
Keys to success:
- Staying healthy
- Attitude (Mentality)
- Practicing rigorously / Playing matches (rhythm)
- His team
- Facing Federer
Rafael Nadal had a stellar season in 2017, capturing two grand slam titles and finishing the year as World Number One. He had, perhaps one of the most successful, if not the most successful fall hardcourt run of his career. Still, despite all that success, the year didn’t end on a particularly high note for him. At the World Tour Finals in London, Rafael Nadal was hindered by a familiar foe. His knees, known for their treacherous ways, had betrayed him once again and for the umpteenth time, Nadal wobbled out of the season. At this stage in his career, one thing is certain. He must find a way to stay healthy and that means picking and choosing the tournaments where he can play himself into form for the tournaments that matter the most at this stage – the slams. If he doesn’t, he risks setting himself up for a terrible slump in 2018. As we all know, when it comes to Rafa, good things and bad things usually stem from the same place and that is the state of his health.
One of those good-bad things that come from Rafa’s health, is his attitude on the court and to a large extent, off it. Nadal has always talked about playing with ‘good feeling’ or with the right attitude/mentality. Most of the time, Nadal achieves this right attitude by repeated grueling practice sessions. He is probably the greatest rhythm player that has ever picked up a tennis racket. Without continuous practice and a lot of competitive matches under his belt, Rafa quickly falls out of form and maybe more disturbing, when he does find his form, he cannot close a match if it becomes tight. In the last two years, we have discovered Rafael Nadal’s secret to saving so many breakpoints with such intense, ruthless, daring and yet perfectly deliberate high risk plays. It was his mindset. In his mind, there has to be no doubt that he can deliver when it counts. Once doubt creeps in, his stroke mechanics fall apart. The forehand that usually lands on the baseline, will sail long. The running forehand pass that usually screams past his hapless opponents will fly helplessly into the net. For Nadal, attitude is everything. It always has been.
The other feature of Nadal’s game that depends so heavily on his health is his confidence. You could say it is closely related to his attitude. There is also a different dimension to it. How well he trusts his body. Confidence or a lack thereof is usually the difference between Nadal effortlessly running around his backhand to rip those monstrous forehands his opponents fear. It is the difference between him squeezing his eyes shut in frustration as a blazing shot zings by him for a winner or digging deep, chasing down the shot and making the incredible gets that have become something of tennis legend. If Nadal is high on confidence, he’ll be tough to contend with in 2018. However, he has never had back to back seasons of dominance before. His recent knee injury threatens to continue that trend.
One very important factor in how successful of a season Rafa has is his team which is made up almost entirely of his family members. Being very family oriented, Nadal is constantly affected – positively or negatively – by the actions of his team members. The addition of Carlos Moya has been great for him as it has allowed him to listen to a different voice that he is perhaps not as emotionally attached to. It has also allowed him to step away from his uncle’s stifling guidance and take a few more decisions that are purely Rafa and not inclusively Nadal. I will dare to take a step into private matters and suggest he settle down just like his fellow big four members have. Being married might just liberate him as well as solidify a potentially powerful right-hand woman in his corner. Just ask Roger Federer.
Speaking of Federer, the Swiss has to come into play when considering how successful their seasons will be. Ranked 1 and 2 respectively, Rafa and Roger can only meet in the finals of any competition they enter together. If 2017 is anything to go by, we can safely assume they’ll contest for a fair bit of titles in 2018 and perhaps a grand slam or two in the mix. The good thing for Nadal is he doesn’t have to worry about Federer until the finals of any tournament. The bad thing for Nadal is he drew a blank in all his matches against Federer last year. He was 0 out of 4. That was unprecedented and shows without a shadow of a doubt that for the first time in their rivalry, Federer has his number. If that doesn’t change, Nadal could be making a lot of finals in 2018, and walking away with very few titles. He must figure out a way to turn their matchup back in his favor and deal with the reality that he cannot go to the Federer backhand for cheap points anymore.
What are your thoughts on Nadal’s 2018 season? Will it be one to remember or one to forget? We wager that whatever it will be, is heavily dependent on him bouncing back from that knee injury.