Ok, first let me address the inflammatory, clickbait headline. There’s truth to it. Rafael Nadal still hasn’t won Miami and we already know he’s never won the year-end ATP championships.
The ATP finals tournament is the biggest non-Slam event on the calendar. There’s no debate. Rafa’s never won it. Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, etc, have all won it, just not Nadal.
The Miami Masters has been considered the “Fifth Slam” for many years, especially before Larry Ellison got his hands all over Indian Wells. If you want to recognize the desert event as bigger than Miami, so be it, but Miami’s had the history and in my mind still has that stature.
Nadal, of course, won’t be winning Miami this year, not after a stunning loss yesterday evening to his countryman Fernando Verdasco in three sets. Rafa use to own Fernando winning their first 13, but that’s two straight losses to him since, and with just one title since the French – a smallish victory in Buenos Aires a month ago – you can sense the frustration setting in for Nadal.
Why? Because for Nadal right now it’s not about forehands and backhands, bum knees and blisters. The physical problems, he says, are behind. But now it’s worse. It’s between the ears.
“The thing is the question of being enough relaxed to play well on court,” Nadal said Sunday. “Today my game in general improved since a month and a half. But at the same time, still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing with a little bit of anxious on that moments.”
And he detailed.
“For example, in the 4‑3 in the first set, and then in the 5‑4, 30‑Love. Something that didn’t happen a lot during my career. I have been able to be under control, control my emotions during, let’s say, 90%, 95% of my matches of my career, something that today is being tougher to be under self‑control. But I gonna fix it. I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I gonna do it.”
Fixing knees and shaky groundstrokes comes with time, practice and a plan. Fixing mental issues can take a lot longer, depending on how deep they run. There’s no pill, no proven method, other than winning again. Most players will go through mental spells, the good ones far fewer than the bad.
I’ve said many times, the pros these days can hit all the shots, the difference lies in their mental makeup. And often that’s the very fine line between winning and losing at this the highest of levels. And right now Rafa is losing.
Last week against Raonic, he played a poor game at 5-5 in the third. Now he plays a bad set against Verdasco, dropping balls short, playing out of position and spraying mishits.
There was also the poor performance against Tim Smyczek at the Australian before Tomas Berdych blasted him. And that strange loss at the start of the year to Michael Berrer.
All this from a guy who’s long been arguably the best mentally on the court in some years.
“Feeling that I don’t have this self‑confidence that when I hit the ball I gonna hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball running and knowing that my position will be the right one,” he said. “All these are small things that are difficult to explain. One of the tougher things have been fixed, that is the game, in my opinion. Now I need to fix again the nerves, the self‑control on court. That’s another issue.”
Fortunately for Rafa, the clay is right around the corner. Literally. Monte Carlo begins – would you believe? – two weeks from today. Winning cures just about everything. It can fix.
And these spells happen. Look at look at Novak Djokovic’s hand shaking.
“Happened for two points and then I was able to be back and to forget about that two mistakes,” Nadal said. “Now takes a little bit more time.”
So feeling the nerves is not uncommon, not even for GOATs. What is uncommon is for an athlete in his prime flat-out admitting he’s shrinking in the big moments.
Well, the clay season just got that much better.
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