November 26th, 2009
10:55 PM ET

Is Rafael Nadal a spent force?

Rafa Nadal's performances at the ATP World Tour Finals in London have raised serious question marks about the Spaniard's well-being.

Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?
Can Rafael Nadal ever return to his former heights again?

Nadal began 2009 in superb style, beating Roger Federer to win the Australian Open title, taking him one tournament away from a clean sweep of slams.

His displays over the last year had taken the Spaniard to number one in the world rankings and all the locker-room mummerings were about Federer's possible demise and Nadal's increasing superiority.

Yet, the last seven months have seen a complete turnaround in the fortunes of the Majorcan.

A stunning defeat at the hands of Robin Soderling saw Nadal's seemingly invincible reign as French Open champion come to a crashing end - leaving the way open for Federer to snatch the one title that had always eluded him and take back the No.1 ranking in the process.

How had Nadal gone from this unbeatable powerhouse, to looking vulnerable, in the blink of an eye?

Well the answer soon became appearent when it was revealed Nadal was suffering from a crippling knee injury that would mean he could not defend his Wimbledon title, an absence that Federer took advantage of to take back his SW19 title in dramatic fashion.

With injuries so commonplace in modern tennis, I reckon it takes a really bad one to stop somebody competing in the most prestigious tournament in the world - especially when they are the defending champion.

And since his return to the ATP Tour, Nadal has looked a pale shadow of his former self. To be beaten in straight sets by both Soderling and Nikolay Davydenko in London is not the form of a man ranked second in the world.

Nadal prides himself on his upper body strength. His power and physique is something to behold and made him the player that took the tennis world by storm.

But while your upper body can be strengthened permanently, the knee cannot. Could it be that years of pumping iron and making his upper body stronger have placed too much strain on Nadal's lower body?

Could his knees be showing the wear and tear of coming into the sport so early and generating the immense power that is needed for those stunning clay-court ground-strokes.

On faster surfaces, Nadal is now just another player. If he does not perform to his previous imperious clay-court best, following the winter break, maybe he never will.

The acid test will be Roland Garros 2010.

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Filed under:  Tennis
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. pramok

    The new breed of players specially on hard court will be force to be re conned with. Nadal or Federer will not be the same force in 2010 as more younger players will emerge in the ATP circuit every year. Pramok

    November 27, 2009 at 2:07 am | Reply
  2. pramok

    The new breed of players specially on hard court will be force to be re conned with. Nadal or Federer will not be the same force in 2010 as more younger players will emerge in the ATP circuit every year. I would advise Nadal to take a complete break from tennis for 12 months or more and come back fresh and hungry and fully recovered from the knee injury.
    It is better than lingering on as a mediocre . Pramok

    November 27, 2009 at 2:10 am | Reply
  3. Lee

    I really love watching Nadal play and I hope he will have a good break come back fully healed.He is one of the best player in the tennis world and I believe he will be in the years to come.He can do it ,he is young and he will be in his excellent form like when he played with Federer during that epic game last year!!!

    November 27, 2009 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  4. murat

    Nadal's game is based on breaking the opponent down slowly and wearing them out. He does not have a weapon where he can finish a point in two shots like federer. So, when HIS body is not hundred percent, his style of game will not work. I watched the last Davydenko game, and whenever the rallies got long, Nadal lost the point. He does not have a flat forehand where he can hit a winner like federer. It takes a toll on you to play those topspins constantly. He needs to change some things if he wants to be a top player for years to come.

    November 29, 2009 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  5. cristian

    The problem is that Nadal's style of play demands top physical shape. Have you noticed how little, by comparison, Federer seems to have to exert himself (physically) in order to defeat his opponents? So, unless Nadal fully recovers his previous physical strength, he is unlikely to return to the number 1 spot.

    November 29, 2009 at 8:24 pm | Reply
  6. Lucy

    Del Potro and not Nadal as expected will break all Federer records. I don't like Del Potro but he is there.

    November 30, 2009 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  7. JP

    Del Potro to break all Federer records? That's a big call but not one I necessarily disagree with. However he is a tall man and such physiques are vulnerable to injury (his wrist at such a young age). Nadal was certainly on his way if his fitness stood the test of time. That's where Federer has excelled. You don't win 15 slams without having been consistently healthy on the tour. Nadal is a powerhouse and such play is not sustainable. Federer is certainly on the way down but if one or two grand slam draws go his way he may win one or two more. But as Federer himself said last week the current depth of the field is really deep. More so than in the last two decades I think. Its fantastic for tennis and I think Federer and Nadal will play more of a fill in role with the likes of Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray (to name a few) to take a lead role. I see the number one spot changing often between them. Its a great time for mens tennis and I hope Nadal can stay fit and win a couple more.

    December 1, 2009 at 2:19 am | Reply
  8. David B.

    Nadal employs a one dimensional game that relies solely on him pushing, pushing, pushing. Contrary to modern-day belief, this approach is not sustainable on a person's body for them to reach their early 30's and still be challenging for supremacy within the sporting world. Federer by comparison has exceptional use of his body and directions, and therefore is able to use his back, unlike most of the tennis world that use their arms, to generate his power from. Have you noticed how Federer never uses two hands on any stroke; he doesn't need to, his power comes from his back. This approach allows him the extra time needed for him to place his shots perfectly. Federer was obviously allowed to develop naturally, which is why he has never lost the gift that was born to him. Federer stays in the moment and doesn't try to win, he concentrates on what he's doing and that allows him to win. Nadal, Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray, Davydenko, Roddick; they all rely on force to win games; sure, some have better weapons than others, but all use their energy for the sole purpose of winning. None of them will ever match what Federer has achieved because none of them share his philosophy of the journey, as opposed to theirs, which is the acquisition of the goal.

    December 1, 2009 at 6:32 pm | Reply
  9. marichelle chielo

    i really wanted nadal to be on the no. 1 spot. hope he would be able to play on his best condition again.
    though theres a lot of good players coming out of their nest..soderling, del potro, murray.
    but bec of the time they spent for the tournaments they lack the rest that their body need,
    hoping that Nadal will be back on his best shot again..

    December 2, 2009 at 2:04 am | Reply
  10. EG

    If you look at the tough players that used their relentless, high energy, aggressive styles to out-want and out-fight opponents (Chang, Hewitt) they all enjoyed more success as very young players. Its not just his knees, Nadal's whole style revolves around having the bounce-back energy of an 18, 19, 20 year old. For Nadal 25 is like Federer at 30. Roger's strongest days may well be behind him, but he will find it much easier to stay near his genius best for longer. With his experience he could win several more slams even if he is much less dominant. Nadal in comparison may have some hot runs of form, but is increasingly unlikely to be able to sustain them

    December 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  11. Kevin v

    I have always been a devout Federer fan while one of my best friends has been a staunch Nadal supporter, naturally spawning big debates between the two of us. During about 2006, I commented to her that Nadal's physical style of play was too strenuous and that his career would end prematurely as a result. I don't think that my comment was particularly psychic because the evidence was there for all to see. I agree with many of the comments above especially those relating to Nadal's short lived career comparable to those of Chang and Hewitt. As much as I'm a Federer fan, it's Nadal who has given him his sternest tests during his career so it's actually a pity that Nadal's body is failing him.

    Quite honestly, I don't see Nadal reaching the number 1 ranking again. The majority of tournaments are on hard courts and there are just too many guys around who'll execute him on that surface. He may win a couple more clay titles but I'll be surprised if he reaches the top spot. I hope I'm wrong but I just cannot see it happening. The human body has limits and Rafa has tested it to the extreme. Many clay courters have suffered this fate. The likes of Ferrero, Coria, Muster etc. have all had one or two really good years and then faded into the background shortly thereafter. Federer's style of play is a lot more sustainable in comparison.

    December 4, 2009 at 6:01 am | Reply
  12. Melissa O.

    It is only a matter of time before Nadal will reclaim the No. 1 spot. It was obvious he didn't fully recover for the world tour. The defining moment will be in the 2010 Aussie Open when he will be expected to play at the height that saw him win his first hard court grand slam in 2009. Hopefully he will be fit to prove himself to the world that he is just in the same class as Federer.

    December 4, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  13. AS

    If I had to choose one of Nadal´s strengths that would be mental toughness. All the rest, he is very good but still defeatable without his attitude and mental power. He just perfoms better than the rest when he has to and he is able to walk that extra mile where there is no traffic jam. Nadal´s main hit this year has not been his knee (which has affected him enourmously) but his family unstability (his parent´s divorce) that he has had to handle. Once he finishes managing it 100% all the rest will come back together.

    December 9, 2009 at 8:40 pm | Reply

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