Recent stats a concern for Rafael Nadal, but mean streak should return with confidence and time

As the ATP Tour heads to Indian Wells for the first Masters 1000 event of the season, Ahmed Rizvi looks at the problems that continue to hold back Rafael Nadal and his hopes of a return to the elite.

Last week, Roger Federer, recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles, posing alongside Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. He was also courtside on Friday night for the NBA clash between the LA Lakers and Atlanta Hawks.

Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray were on Davis Cup duty at the weekend, battling through five-set thrillers to guide Serbia and Great Britain into the quarter-finals respectively, where they will face-off against each other in July.

Rafael Nadal, meanwhile, was in Mexico, trying to find peace on the tranquil beaches of Cancun after deciding to take a week off following his loss to Pablo Cuevas in the Rio semi-finals.

That was his third successive defeat in a deciding set. He lost to Dominic Thiem in the Buenos Aires semi-final in three sets, despite having match point, and to Fernando Verdasco in five in the opening round of the Australian Open.

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At his peak, Nadal would rarely lose such matches consecutively, certainly not to players like Cuevas, no disrespect to the Uruguayan. With his incredible defence and perseverance, Nadal could snuff the fight out of his opponents, but that aura seems to be on the wane.

Between 2005 and 2014, 151 of his 772 matches (19.5 per cent) went to a deciding set and he prevailed in 114 of them – a winning percentage of 75.5. In 2013 and 2014, when Nadal returned to the courts after almost six months out because of knee tendinitis, that percentage was an astonishing 83. Overall, in those two years, 21 per cent of his matches (29 of 141) went to a decider and he triumphed in 24 of them.

Since the start of 2015, however, 30 per cent of his 93 matches have gone the distance and he has won 16 of 28 – a winning percentage of 57.

Those numbers should give a glimpse into the problems plaguing Nadal at the moment, and confidence is clearly at the top of the list. The lack of confidence means his shots are not as penetrating, or deep, as they once were and his positioning on the court has been passive.

“It seems he is more worried about hitting ball than attacking,” Rod Laver, the Australian great, said after Nadal’s Australian Open exit.

"It's not an excuse, but confidence is lacking in the important moments," Toni Nadal, his uncle and coach, told Spanish website El Espanol last month. "In sports like tennis or golf, you miss two shots and your confidence slips. It's happened to Tiger Woods and Seve Ballesteros."

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Toni also said his nephew’s forehand is not the weapon it once was, which means the 14-time grand slam champion will have to change his game.

“Rafa has always had strategic tennis, not direct points with serve,” Toni said in another interview. “But tennis has changed now. In Australia, 70 per cent of the points were won in four shots or less. So he needs to adapt.”

Nadal, of course, has been trying to do just that. He has changed his racquet and at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, we saw him coming to the net a lot more often to shorten the points.

Any changes need time to bear fruit, so patience will be key. Dumping Toni for another coach, as some analysts are suggesting, is not a remedy, for nobody knows Nadal’s game better than his uncle.

Instead, Nadal needs a confidence boost, or a break, like he has just taken in Cancun. Or maybe a sort of note that a struggling Pete Sampras received from his wife at the 2002 Wimbledon.

“My husband – seven times Wimbledon champion – Pete,” Bridgette Wilson wrote.

And Nadal, perhaps, needs a similar reminder of who he is. A nine-time French Open and a 14-time grand slam champion.

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