Tuesday, July 7, 2015

WHERE IN THE WORLD IS RAFAEL NADAL?

That's four years in a row now - four years in a row that Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players in the history of the game, has lost to players that he has no business losing to at Wimbledon.  For a man who made 5 finals in a row (with a one year hiatus when he skipped the tournament in 2009) to go from a man to be dealt with to this is as surprising as his demise, at this venue anyway, was precipitous.  And ironically, while the agents of his struggles on this surface, one that is in many ways well suited to his particular set of skills, have changed, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

The outlier in this 4-year nightmare, was actually the first in 2012, when he lost to an unknown and unremarkable Belgian Steve Darcis.  A player with almost no record of success to speak of (other than his generous ranking of 100+), and absolutely no grass court record, didn't win the match so much by his prowess, as his persistence.  Rafa didn't appear to be at his best from the first ball tossed to the last, and afterwards the oddity of his opponents qualities along with the ever present undertone of some mysterious injury to which the result was supposedly indebted, most of us chalked this up to the exquisite unpredictability of sports.

But 2013 began an unnerving trend, that has persisted to this year, and without evidence to the contrary, one must finally now begin to wonder if this is the new norm.  Lukas Rosol readily filled the role of villain in 2013.  He supposedly distracted Rafa with an elaborate return routine, rivaled only in complexity by Rafa's well known intricate serve routine - an irony not lost on those who are fed up with both types of indulgences.  He didn't back down emotionally, nor did he play the supplicant, deigning to insist on the right of way at the change over, to which Rafa responded with an Irina Spirlea-styled shoulder to the chest.  These little trinkets did nothing to endear himself to the legion of Rafanatics who viewed those indignities as a lack of respect owed to the object of their collective affection.

But what really got their goat, what really stuck in their craw, what really pissed them the hell off that day, was that Lukas Rosol played his socks off - way above his pay grade.  Not for three flash-in-the-pan sets, which could be dismissed as a moment of perfect lunacy major upsets are typically perceived to be, but for five blood thirsty, sledgehammer wielding, ball busting sets.  He never backed down, he never blinked, and he never took his foot off the pedal - for those trespasses he was despised.  But at the end of the match, even having added to the litany of complaints against him by, at once, dismissively and exuberantly chucking his racket through the net and onto the other side of the court in celebration, nobody who'd actually watched the match could contend that he hadn't merited the result.  There were no strange bounces, sleeping line judges or shouts from the peanut gallery that could be cited as explanation.

The brave bull had simply been slaughtered.

Revenge was sweet in 2014 when, despite further acts of benign petulance like knocking over Nadal's  carefully stationed water bottles at the changeover, the result we'd all expected the year before came to fruition, and Nadal was through to face another who would gape to have his taste of glory.  But nobody bothered to tell Nick Kyrgios that his role as understudy was non-negotiable, and so he didn't negotiate.  He took what was rightfully his by playing the exact brand of ball-bashing, first strike heaving, savage attack tennis that had unnerved the great champion the year before, but that he had appeared to have rectified a round earlier.

The bigger the moment, the bigger Kyrgios hit the ball.  The more Nadal dug in, the deeper into a technical hole he seemed to fall, where nothing he did reduced his deficit, and nothing he thought of made a difference.  Everything Rosol had done, Kyrgios did better, and while it appeared Rosol had reached the zenith of his career, and thus the result could again be dismissed as an outlier in the sample, the same could not be said of the young Australian buck.  Here, the rumblings of something afoot became more than the low guttural murmur of Rafanatic hearts fluttering at the unbearable scene playing itself all over again.  But as Kyrgios continued to amass results against top players the rest of the year and earlier this year, some may have taken solace in the growing perception that Kyrgios is the second coming of an Australian messiah.

But how in the world can we explain Dustin Brown?

Yes, he had beaten Rafa the year before at Halle, but he was coming off of a three day separation from his 9th title at Roland Garros against the one man that most believed could and would usurp him  on that throne.  So one could be forgiven for chalking that result up to the cup having runneth over.  Yes, grass is by far, the best surface in an otherwise abjectly indistinct career of a journeyman whose talent has frequently appeared to be inversely proportional to his understanding of the game and/or his technique.  But nobody expected lightning to strike twice - not now when Nadal had a relative vacation as compared to years past, giving him plenty of time to recover, including a win in Stuttgart along the way for his first second title of the year and his first on grass for 5 years.

So how did he do it?  And what does this say about Nadal?

First how he did it:  technically Nadal is by far a more consistent player, with better margins for error, far superior fitness and infinitely greater stamina of concentration.  As such, the only way for Brown to overcome this, was to eliminate those advantages from the equation, and intentionally disrupt all of conditions which would normally be in his favor.

He served almost as hard on the second serve as the first, giving Nadal few legitimate looks at the serve in which he could impose his superior return game.  He blasted flat hard shots off both wings to the corners, preventing Nadal from taking control of the point or playing points at his preferred cadence.  He took away his movement, athleticism and concentration, by restricting points to less than 4 shots - win lose or draw - and as such was as likely to impose his will on the great champion, as the great champion could do the same to him.  If the flat hard shot didn't elicit a winner, a drop shot would follow, disrupting Nadal's comfort level in the point, as well as his preferred court positioning.  And rather than hitting volleys through the court, giving Nadal a chance to keep the point alive for one more shot, he decided to kill the ball and the point with angled and drop volleys.

The tactical approach was perfectly planned, and shockingly well executed, and as such it's hard to find fault in Nadal's game, but there was of course a great deal to find fault with, as is always the case on the losing end.

First, Nadal's serve earned him few free points, which is not a problem when you are a player who is better at earning points than anyone else in the world - perhaps in the history of the game.  But because Brown had on his mind to take away that distinct advantage, Nadal was left with a 50/50 chance of winning the point.  For every other player on tour, the 50/50 chance of winning the point is only sustainable if your serve is earning you free points elsewhere.  But Nadal has long since abandoned the technique that allowed him to essentially serve his way to the US Open title in 2010, a first for him.  The result; having to earn each point (as he normally does so well), but now within 3-4 shots, became a bridge too far.

Also, Nadal's return positioning was unchanged throughout the duration of that match - no adjustments were made throughout the match, and as a result his profligate returning cost him any chance of breaking Dustin Brown's serve when a break was so desperately needed to give him any chance of winning the match.  As I have said in a previous post, it is not the serve that is the critical success factor on grass, it is the return, and because Brown was able to put pressure on Nadal's serve with his returns, in a way that Nadal was not able to with his returns, the match was a fairly straightforward obliteration of the great champion.

And that's the part that becomes so disconcerting.  Despite legitimate caveats to the contrary, this is the fourth year running that he has lost early to a player he had no business losing to, and a such it felt oddly very routine.  And if you didn't know any better, you'd think that both he and his opponent had reached the conclusion early on in the match, that it wouldn't be anything out of the ordinary for him to lose, yet again, the way he has lost so frequently at this venue.  Although Dustin Brown's level was due for a drop, and despite his affable nature, he played the role of villain again, as did a long line of players had in the years preceding this result.

And as such, it has to be asked as far as Wimbledon is concerned:  is this exactly where Rafa Nadal is supposed to be?
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