Tennis Freaks

“1821: Nadal, I’ve noticed, has a problem with his shorts, in that they keep on getting stuck up his jacksie and he has to pull them out before every point. Not sure why he doesn’t just get a size up, he’s probably loaded.”

FOX Sports – TENNIS – Nadal tries to bust out of his slump

Nadal tries to bust out of his slump

Matthew Cronin /

Rafael Nadal is mired in the first significant slump of his career and he isn’t looking anything like the player who bullied top ranked Roger Federer four times earlier this year.

He is unsure of himself, hitting too short and failing to adjust to fast hard-court and slick indoor surfaces.

He’s not, as was commonly thought early this summer, a guy who is ready to go toe to toe with Federer on a weekly basis, despite his excellent record against him. In fact, even though Nadal is ranked No. 2, he is so far behind Federer in the rankings now that it would take a long term collapse by the red-hot Swiss for the Spaniard to be able to catch him by next spring.

Nadal hasn’t won a title since winning his second consecutive French Open in June. He hasn’t even looked like a prime-time title contender since he nearly shocked the world to become the first modern clay-courter to win Wimbledon, when he fell to Federer in four sets in the final.

Rafael Nadal has a long ways to go to catch Roger Federer at the top of the rankings. (Javier Soriano / Getty Images)

With his bulging biceps and tree trunk legs, the 20-year-old Nadal is the sport’s most imposing physical specimen, but he sure isn’t feeling like it these days.

“I had a lot of matches in the first half of the season and my muscles were very tired,” Nadal said. “Mentally, too … it was a big effort. (But) I am playing better now.”

That thought hasn’t showed up on the scoreboard yet. Since Wimbledon, the Spaniard hasn’t even managed to reach another semifinal. All that loud talk about how he might challenge Federer for the year-end No. 1 spot has been reduced to a whisper.

The way it looks today, Federer will break Jimmy Connors’ all-time record of consecutive weeks at No. 1 streak on February 26, 2007. After winning the Tennis Masters Series Madrid last week, Federer clocked in his 143rd straight week at No. 1.

For Nadal to stop him, Federer would essentially have to lose in the first round of every tournament he plays until February and Nadal would have to win every tournament he enters.

That’s not going to happen.

For all his positives — foot speed, standout defense, a big forehand and consistent backhand — the left-handed Nadal has yet to become a standout player on hard courts or indoor because he is lacking in some crucial areas that the surface demands.

“He still thinks that because he’s bigger and stronger than the other guys that he should be able to wear down his opponents over the long haul, which is fine on clay, but doesn’t always work on other surfaces,” said FOX Sports and Tennis Channel analyst Leif Shiras. “He needs to find a better balance to his game, where he can go more effectively from defense to offense. He’ll have to do that before he can take the ultimate step.”

On clay, Nadal can play way behind the baseline and wail groundstrokes, but on faster surfaces, it’s not as easy to catch up to the ball. In winning five titles from February through mid-June, including his second French Open title, Nadal was able to chase down nearly every shot thrown at him and roar it back. That hasn’t been the case since Wimbledon, when he’s been forced to cut down on his wind-up, something he’s not that comfortable with.

“It’s a lot harder to win points from 20 feet behind the baseline on faster surfaces,” Shiras said. “A lot of guys he’s playing have first-strike capability and can close at the net. He’s trying to flatten out his strokes, but on clay, he can get a bigger wind-up and that’s what he’s comfortable with.”

Last week, Nadal failed to defend his Madrid title and got into a nasty spat with Czech Tomas Berdych after a straight set loss. The tall and powerful Berdych has beaten him three times and despite a heavily partisan crowd screaming in his favor, Nadal couldn’t dig himself into enough points.

Plus, he lost his cool later saying that the 10th-ranked Berdych was a bad person who was making faces at him during the match. He thrashed Berdych for putting his finger to his lips after the victory, which Berdych said was his way of telling the crowd that there are more tennis players in the world than just Nadal.

“When he say to you that you are very bad, for me it’s nice that a very bad player can beat him three times,” Berdych said.

It’s young guys like Berdych who aren’t afraid of Nadal, who know that they can attack his second serve and are willing to hammer his forehand until they can get a crack at his weaker backhand side. The Spaniard may bellow “Vamos,” leap into the air and pump his fists to the sky, but other talented players who can figure out the Xs and Os are aware that Nadal’s heavy topspin isn’t going to do him as much good on courts where the ball stays lower.

When Nadal is landing his forehand on the service line on hardcourts, it’s sometimes a sitter. Players like Berdych, Mikhail Youzhny (who beat Nadal at the U.S. Open), James Blake (who has beaten him twice) and Federer know how to crack a short ball and close at the net.

“You can hit through him,” Shiras said. “He’s not serving effectively enough, and guys can get rips at his second serve. Players like Berdych aren’t intimated by him.”

However, this is no career crisis for Nadal. He’s still young and is a driven, hard worker. He has been trying to develop a more effective all-around game and while his results have been disappointing since June, he has won four hardcourt titles in his career, which shows that when he’s confident and is willing to take more risks, he could become a consistent major threat off clay.

The results may not come until next year, but he does own a 6-2 lifetime record against Federer and if anyone loves to tango with the Swiss, it’s Nadal.

“I think I am training hard and with enthusiasm for a long time,” Nadal said. “Right now I’m trying to become a more comprehensive player, with a better serve. I’m at a very good stage of my career. For me, that’s very, very important, and I’ve worked hard to be here. I feel much better now than a couple of months ago. I am playing much better.”


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