The 2012 US Open began with a noticeable absentee with world number three Rafael Nadal unable to contest the final Grand Slam of the year.
The 2010 champion has been sidelined with knee tendonitis since withdrawing from the London Olympics. Nadal’s last appearance was a shock second round exit at the hands of world number 100 Lukas Rasol at Wimbledon in July.
The game and its fans have grown accustomed to the herculean battles that the Spaniard shares with both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Unfortunately the physically demanding nature of Nadal’s game seems to be taking its toll on the 26 year old.
After dethroning Federer in the ATP rankings at the end of 2008 the following year proved to be a challenge for the eleven time Grand Slam champion. With success at the 2009 Australian Open the sheer dominance displayed by Nadal was great for supporters but frightening for his opposition.
When he was unable to defend his Wimbledon crown many thought his longevity in the game would be severely limited. But the 2010 season was highly successful for Nadal as he claimed the French Open, Wimbledon and US Open crowns.
This year began with the longest and arguably the greatest Grand Slam final in history with Djokovic taking out Nadal in a six hour epic at the Australian Open. Nadal exacted revenge by defeating Djokovic, in a rain interrupted French Open, to claim an open era record of seven titles at Roland Garros.
However, it seems injury has yet again hampered the Spaniard’s year. As frustrating as it is Nadal must either drastically alter his game in order to maintain longevity or accept the fact he will not have a lengthy career.
Nadal’s strength is his blistering speed around the court and the ability to use his physicality to negate the opposition. With all his memorable encounters with Federer and Djokovic, Nadal’s body seems unable to keep up with the high standard he has set for himself. If the ‘Spanish Bull’ is not able to overcome this latest hurdle then will he be the same player when he returns from injury?
Djokovic has been able to completely dismantle Nadal’s game in their more recent matches. The Spaniard is one of the best to quickly turn defence into attack. By looping balls back into the court the Spaniard slowly wears his opposition down and then uses his immaculate forehand to finish off points. Djokovic however raised the bar and uses this tactic to attack the defencive game style of Nadal. The Serbian takes full advantage of any short ball which disallows Nadal valuable time to get a better court position.
So what can he do to alter his game and improve his longevity? Serve and volley is a common trait that is adopted by current players, mostly as a tactic to avoid predictability. Many argue though that it was this very tactic that carried Federer to a seventh Wimbledon crown.
The 2010 US Open saw the emergence of Nadal’s cross court backhand which is one of most underrated shots in the men’s game. All players on tour are well aware of the famous forehand but it was the unexpected change he made to the backhand that took everyone by surprise. He flattened out the shot and added extra pace, in addition to minimising the slice, which is usually very effective on clay. It proves that Nadal can alter his game if need be, but it will take more than tinkering a groundstroke.
Nadal would be naïve to think that he does not need to change his game. He has now withdrawn from three Grand Slams and is proving that his career is in serious jeopardy if he continually adopts the same physically demanding game style. However, there is absolutely no doubt that he has the skill and determination required to modify his game, and potentially continue playing at the highest level for a number of years to come.