STARNBERG, November 23, 2022 (Guest Post)
Rafael Nadal has not won only three of the 14 biggest tournaments in the tennis calendar. And the main title, which he lacks, is winning the ATP Finals. So the season finale is the perfect storm for Nadal’s uncomfortable circumstances.
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He was playing late in the season when he was often injured.
Nadal has been injury-prone since the beginning of his career. And the end of the season is a period when all the stress of a long year piles up and often translates into physical problems.
This season, Rafael was selected for the final 18th time. But he will play only his 11th. He was withdrawn from the competitions seven more times before they started. And of his ten previous appearances, Nadal finished the tournament once before schedule because of an injury (in 2017, he withdrew after his first match in the group).
In recent years, this problem has only worsened. Since 2016, Nadal has only twice played a full final – in 2019 and 2020.
Rafael has come to Turin after a blurred end of the season due to injuries. After Wimbledon, he played only three tournaments and said to himself, “I need days on tour. I’m not even talking about matches and tournaments, just the tour. So I need training with the guys.”
In the same interview, he said it’s hard to imagine winning the final under the current circumstances, but he did admit before the tournament started, “If I thought I didn’t have a chance at something important, I wouldn’t have come here. I’ve played very little for the last few months, but I have a chance.”
The tournament is being played on Nadal’s worst surface, an indoor hard court.
The final tournament has been held since 1970, and in all that time, it has only been held on open courts three times – in 1974 (on the grass in Melbourne) and 2003-2004 (on a hard court in Houston). So the final is almost always played in the halls, on the fast courts.
For Nadal, the indoor hard court is in the worst condition. A simple statistic shows this: on indoor courts, he’s won only 69% of his career matches, and in all other circumstances, his minimum is 78%. (We won 25% of his wins on the court, not considering it because he’s only played eight ATP-level matches on it in his career, the last being in 2004).
Nadal admits: “I don’t know how many times I’ve played in the final with a real chance of winning. Of course, historically, indoors is the worst surface for me, but I’ve improved dramatically in recent years.
In recent years, Rafael has become much more aggressive in playing and serving, hitting more flat, going to the net more often, and doing many things that work well in the halls. But his problem on these fast courts probably isn’t even that his game is becoming less effective but that his opponents are getting more opportunities to cause him problems. With a lower rebound, it’s harder for Nadal to neutralize powerful serves and fast attacks so that more players can crush him on a good day.
And opponents who already give Rafa problems become even more dangerous for him. You have to keep in mind that Nadal reached the final twice at last – and lost to:
- Federer (2010);
- and Djokovic (2013).
Overall, the Spaniard made it out of the group six times and lost in the playoffs three times to Federer, twice to Djokovic, and in 2020 to Medvedev (and in that meeting, he served for the match).
Four times Nadal did not make it out of the group. Once he withdrew, and in 2019 he won two of his three matches in the group but dropped out on the difference of sets taken. In 2011, Nadal lost in the group to Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who was then having one of the best seasons of his career and reached the final of the Paris Masters (and then the final of the final) a week before the final.
The Spaniard had his worst showing in 2009 final, losing all three matches in his group (to Djokovic, Robin Soderling, and eventual champion Nikolay Davydenko) without taking a single set.
Nadal regularly asks for the hard court final- they understand him but can’t help.
Nadal and his team used to complain quite regularly about the fact that the final is always held on an indoor hard court. In 2015, for example, Rafael said:
“It’s not fair that I’ve never had the opportunity to play on a surface that suits me better. I’ve always played on the worst surface for me. Even in the gym, you can have a different court. We can play on dirt there, too.”
In 2017, Roger Federer responded to Nadal’s claims:
“The end of the season is not the time for the dirt, that’s all. And it’s right and fair to have it on indoor courts.
We don’t have Masters on grass. There’s only one master in the halls. And indoor courts deserve a place, too.
Is it okay to switch to grass sometimes? Yeah, I guess so. Can you hold the Masters on grass? Yeah, probably, too. Can you have more Masters on the hard court and less on dirt? Yeah, we can argue about all that.
And this year, new ATP head Andrea Gaudenzi acknowledged that Nadal is right about some things, but holding the final on an indoor hard court is “inevitable given the schedule.”
In the context of Nadal’s schedule and wishes, it is interesting that he has won the Davis Cup four times after the final with Spain. Each time the final was held in Spain, it was on indoor turf on three occasions. Only in 2019, the final tournament was held on the indoor hard court of Madrid, and Rafa won all the matches there – though his most vigorous opponents were Karen Khachanov and Denis Shapovalov. And it should be taken into account that in that year and at the final, Nadal did not get out of the group on a slim one and became the only one who beat that year’s champion Stefanos Tsitsipas.
This year in the first group match, Nadal lost to Taylor Fritz 6-7(3), 1-6. And after the game, he spoke about everything written above: the court is fast, the condition is not manageable, not enough practice.
But he promised to work and try to get better. And there’s the confidence that he’ll still succeed.