For Rafael Nadal and his fans, nostalgia can be a cruel temptress: He’s lost his edge
Going through the transcripts of Rafael Nadal’s final press conference of the 2016 US Open on the tournament’s website, it was impossible to miss the efforts of the apologetics to lift his sombre mood.
They talked about the wrist injury that had forced Nadal out of the French Open after two rounds and to skip Wimbledon, and they tried to present his foray into the fourth round at Flushing Meadows as some sort of an achievement under the circumstances.
The Spaniard, however, was having none of it.
“I lost an opportunity to play a great event,” Nadal said after his 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 loss to Frenchman Lucas Pouille in the fourth round on Sunday. “Doesn’t matter if I had the injuries or not, no?
“At the end of the day, is not a moment to find excuses or to be less painful. It is a painful defeat. Losing in the fourth round after having a big chance to play a great event here, feeling myself ready for it, for sure I am not very satisfied, no? I am sad.”
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Nadal’s disappointment is understandable, for he had come to New York as a legitimate contender and played like one in the first week, losing only 20 games on his way to the fourth round.
But against Pouille, he came up short and now, for the first time since 2004, he will finish the year without reaching at least the quarter-finals at one of the grand slams.
Between 2006 and 2015, he had at least two quarter-final-or-better appearances at the majors every year.
Nadal had also won at least one grand slam title every year between 2005 and 2014, but has not reached a major final since the 2014 French Open.
He has even failed to progress beyond the fourth round in his last five major appearances and his grand slam credentials are certainly up for debate.
More worryingly, there are question marks over Nadal’s staying power itself, for his last three defeats at the majors have come in five-setters.
Earlier, he had lost to Fernando Verdasco in the first round of the Australian Open in January and to Fabio Fognini in the third round of the US Open 12 months ago.
There was a time when the Spaniard was virtually unbeatable in fifth sets. In the six years between the 2005 Rome Masters and the 2011 French Open, Nadal lost just once — to Roger Federer in the 2007 Wimbledon final — in 14 five-setters.
Since then, he is 2-5 over the distance. In the pre-2012 part of his career, Nadal boasted a 15-3 record in fifth-set deciders.
This year, Nadal has also come up short in a few crucial third-set deciders. He lost to Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-finals of the Rio Olympics, and then to Kei Nishikori in the bronze-medal play-off. Earlier in the year, he lost to Dominic Thiem in three in the Buenos Aires semis and to Pablo Cuevas in the semi-finals of Rio de Janeiro.
Of course, he did beat Andy Murray and Gael Monfils in consecutive three-setters to win the Monte Carlo Masters, but Nadal does seem a bit unsure on the big points — like he did at 6-6 in the fifth set tiebreak against Pouille after saving three match points. He yanked a forehand into the net.
“Was a big mistake, yeah,” Nadal said. “But you are 6-all in the tiebreak. I played the right point. I put me in a position to have the winner and I had the mistake. That’s it. You cannot go crazy thinking about these kind of things, no?”
As Nadal pointed out, the match should have never reached that stage. He was up a break in the fifth and serving at 4-3, 30-love, when he got broken. The Nadal of old, the one who lorded over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, was unstoppable from those positions, and that is the essential difference.
Can he turn back the clock and scale those lofty heights again? Can he add to his collection of 14 grand slam titles? Nadal certainly still believes so.
He has bounced back in the past, but nostalgia can be cruel temptress.
Instead, the words of Andre Agassi’s warning about Nadal from 11 years ago come to mind. “He’s writing cheques that his body can’t cash,” the American eight-time grand slam winner said.
Sadly, he might have already written the last of his cheques as well.
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Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM