The most important thing to know in tennis is where to stand in the court to maximize your results and minimize your exertion. In competitive matches where you decide to position yourself to defend or attack your opponent is largely going to determine the outcome of the match. I watch Rafael Nadal suffer tremendous wear and tear in every match he plays because he prefers to camp ten, twenty feet behind the baseline. The earlier a player learns to feel comfortable close or inside the baseline, the better off he/she will be in those two important aspects of tennis: Minimum exertion, Maximum results by saving energy. For in tennis, one never knows the duration of a match. Some will say, How can you argue with the phenomenal success of Nadal? Look at his knees at 22 years of age. It is understandable why players fall into the trap of playing so far behind the baseline. Early success on slow, red clay, the heavy top spin and velocity of today's racquets technology force players that far out of position into a false sense of comfort, thus neglecting the forecourt play where they do not feel comfortable at all. I know for fact that Nadal has been attempting to adjust his stand and the results speak for themselves, this year: 4th French Open, his first Wimbledon, Olympic Gold Medal in Beijing, Ausie Open. But at what price? Maximum results yes, but with maximum exertion due to his habit of playing so far behind the baseline, we will be cheated out of enjoying his great performances sooner than we would like.
Well, in 2009, Nadal's shocking loss to Soderling at the French Open and his inability to defend his Wimbledon title due to recurrent knee problems are directly linked with his grueling style of play and his proclivity to play so far behind the baseline.
Fortunately, in 2010, Nadal has been able to make those crucial adjustments and improve his service mph, and he is firmly holding on to his # 1 ranking with considerable distance from his closest persuers: Djokovic, Murray, Fededer etc. and thankfully and lucky for us, his tournament schedule has been picked with more care and consideration for his brand of tennis and knee problems. It will be interesting to see how he does in the season finale in London on a surface least favored to his style of play.
Back to the future: in 2011, Nadal has fallen to Novak Djokovic in seven finals. The most recent at the US Open. It appears that his unique playing style has betrayed him when someone younger, faster and stronger both mentally and physically has caught up to him. The lesson and challenge for Nadal is clear: View the way Federer was able to defeat Djokovic at the French Open. Not by trying to move Djokovic from side to side but by hitting down the middle and not give him any angles. After all, if you give a fast mover a wide ball he is going to return it with a sharper angle and place you under pressure to defend. This has been the pattern lately between Nadal and Djokovic. However, Nadal still holds an advantage in head to head matches, though I don't believe that has any meaning anymore. What Nadal needs to do to return to the top is to stay healthy and play steady percentage tennis against Djokovic by winning the long points. He needs to win the mental game which he seems to have given away by allowing Djokovic to get into his head the same way that Nadal got into Federer's head.
2012 Update: It appears that Nadal learned his lesson in this year's Australian Open finals against Novak Djokovic. After a very long and grueling 6 hour match loss, it would be his last loss in a long period, in which Nadal defeated Djokovic, first in Montecarlo, then Rome and Roland Garros to achieve an unprecedented 7 French Open titles, surpassing Borg's record of six. What has Nadal changed in his game to overcome his psychological hurdle which cost him all those losses in finals last year? Just precisely that. His own mind set and inner believe that he could do it. Djokovic exhibited some of his old ways and pitfalls under pressure this year. He has not been the flawless, hyperbaric chamber, brain trained invincible machine he seemed to be in 2011. Nadal, for his part, has increased the pace and pressure by playing a bit more aggresively inside the court and that has made all the difference between winning or losing. Nevertheless, these two giants of the game are destined to meet again in many future finals in what appears to be the new great rivalry in men's tennis for the benefit and enjoyment of the true fans and followers of this great game.
The above was valid for the first half of 2012. Then in the 2012 Wimbledon Nadal faltered and was forced to take seven months sabbatical to deal with his physical and psychological wounds.
Nadal's return to the tennis world in the Spring of 2013 has been most impressive and spectacular when one considers the long absence from competition. He has entered 12 tournaments so far and has reached the finals in all of them, except Wimbledon, winning ten, including a record setting 8th French Open by defeating his biggest rival, at the present, Novak Djokovic. The most remarkable has been his hard court performance this year culminating with his second US Open title showing his domination over his closest threat, Djokovic, and taking the number one ranking back from him. How has Nadal been able to do all this? Simply by finally doing what I have been suggesting and advising his camp all along from the beginning of his career: By adjusting his court positioning. Playing closer to the baseline and dominating with his big forehand and mixing beautifully his serve Nadal has been able to dominate not only Djokovic but everyone in the field. I still think his service return could be better by varying, and giving opponents different looks by standing in a more aggressive position. By standing so far from the baseline to receive serve he opens up many angles for good servers to attack him. Nadal relies mainly on his foot speed and ability to take control of the rallies once the point starts. But he should be shortening the points instead of lengthening them to take good care of his ailing knees. Playing and losing 54 shots point will not be the recipe for good healthy knees.
2014: Nadal started the year as the number one player in the world and was seeded so in the first major, the Ausie Open. Despite his seeding he had a very difficult draw with guys like Tomic, Monfils, Nishikori, Dimitrov, Federer and Wawrinka on the way to the finals. Then, tragic turn of events. All that wear and tear caught up with him in the form of sudden lower back spasms and prevented Nadal from displaying his great court coverage and movement. Nevertheless, instead of retiring due to obvious injury, after losing the first set to Wawrinka, he showed us his true character, professionalism and respect for the opponent, the occasion, and the public in the finals of a Slam in Melbourne, by losing in four sets.
His next appearance has been a happy one winning the Rio Open in February, but not without a scare. A fellow Spaniard, Pablo Andujar, held two match points against Nadal in the red clay of Rio. So far this year he has shown some vulnerabilities by losing first to Dolgopolov in Indian Wells and Novak Djokovic in the finals of Miami. But the most troubling losses have been lately on his beloved red clay, where Ferrer beat him in the quarters of Montecarlo and Almagro defeated the "the king of clay" in Barcelona. However, his victory in the Mutua Madrid Masters 1000, instead of quieting the skeptics has raised more questions about Nadal's seemingly invincible ways on clay, by the manner in which this "victory" came about. Kei Nishikori, hot from winning in Barcelona, dominated Nadal for most of the match winning the first set 6-2. Exhibiting wonderful offensive tennis, was leading with a break in the second set 4-2 and instead of seeing the match only two games away from victory, Nishikori decided in his own mind, to show his cards to Nadal by calling the trainer. Big mistake. He should have put all his energies and mental fortitude in the next two games and very likely would have won the biggest match of his career. Instead, we have here a very disturbing pattern with this promising Japanese player. Once more he falls short due to physical or muscular issues in appearance when in reality I believe Nishikori's problem is more psychological than physical. He played seven more games at a very high level after he claimed and disclosed his "injury". I am reminded of another great player with similar patterns of conduct in big matches, before he(Djokovic)fixed all that. There was a lot of similarity between the way Nishikori dominated play against Nadal in the Madrid final to the way Djokovic seems to dominate play against Nadal in the last three years. When Nadal starts landing balls short by the service court he is inviting disaster. What Nadal needs to do is to become more offensive minded himself. The best defense is not going to beat the best offense. And this is what is happening with the few players that have beaten Nadal lately. They bring to the court better tactical and strategic positioning and offensive mind set. And Nadal is forced to play his beloved defense 20 feet behind the baseline. Sorry, uncle Toni, that won't work against the best in the field. Make your nephew receive serves from or inside the baseline and do battle in offensive court positions. His shots are not penetrating deep enough, often enough and that is why a few guys like Djokovic, Nishikori and others will start dominating play against the king of clay. Also, What kind of scouting job did you get from watching Nishikori against Ferrer the day before, uncle Toni? It is clear that Nishikori's two handed backhand, like Djkovic's, is the more reliable and dangerous shot. Yet, none of the four Spaniards (Garcia Lopez, Feliciano Lopez, Ferrer and Nadal) that played the Japanese player appeared to be aware of this tactical blunder. It is painful to watch all these good players point after point fall victims to this lack of tactical awareness. Play their forehands 80% of the time and you might see their forehands(Nishikori's and Djkovic's) break down, but not their backhands. Nishikori had about 45 forehand errors(force/unforced) in three sets against Ferrer versus 12 missed backhands. Who, in Nadal's camp was responsible for scouting the Nishikori semifinals against Ferrer, uncle Toni?
Despite all that, in the spring of 2014, Nadal defeated Djokovic in the finals of Roland Garros to win an unprecedented ninth French title. A feat which will remain very diffcult to break. Giving him a total of 14 Slams to date.
2015: Nadal started the year poorly losing to Thomas Berdich at the Aussie Open. But the most perplexing losses have been on his beloved red clay where he lost twice to Fabio Fognini both in Rio and Barcelona. And when things appeared to be getting on track at the Mutua Madrid Masters in May where Nadal faltered and suffered a humiliating loss to a confident Andy Murray, the questions about Nadal's mindset and possible reasons for such bizarre performance in a finals multiply. However you look at it, to me it is very simple a matter of court position: Nadal needs to change and modify his stance, especially on second serve returns or he will continue his losses in a progressive downward spiral. The game has changed in the last couple years. Nadal is used to win matches playing the wrong way. And he can still do it against 90% of players. But if he is to remain in the top he will need to adapt and change his ways and get out of his comfort zone to play a more aggressive, forward style which will allow him to dictate and control his destiny. He can do it. He does on occasions. He is capable of it. It is a matter of mindset. The sooner he gets it the better.
Obviously not soon enough for this year's French Open: The king of clay was dethroned unceremoniously. It was a pathetic display by Nadal. Novak dominated him in every aspect. There was a moment in the first set, where Nadal came back from a 0-4 down, to even the score at 4 games all, when he should have used his momentum to push and pressure Djokovic. But instead, he chose to play too defensive, thereby missing the opportunity of capturing the set. The rest of the match was all Djokovic doing the right things and Nadal playing the wrong way. And that is the tragic part. Nadal's lack of tactical and strategic approach to playing a guy in his best form is the biggest head scratcher. If you lose a match playing and utilizing the right tactics and strategy, tip your cap to him. But Nadal has lately been using the wrong tactics and strategy against the best players in the world and therefore is guaranteeing his losses and rapid drop from the top of the game's elite. Djokovic is not invincible. Nobody is. He should have lost the semis to Andy Murray had they played a continuos match. But be that as it may, Wawrinka reapped the rewards and played the right way to deny the "Joker" the only Slam he doesn't have.
Nadal played well enough at the 2015 US Open to reach the 3rd round. Then, once more this year he fell short against a hot Fognini in five thrilling sets.
2016 began well for Nadal. He appeared to have got back his good form with a number of victories over top ten guys. But just when things were looking good at the French Open in May, he suddenly withdrew with a new injury. This time his left hand wrist. That set him back three months and he almost missed the Rio Olympics, where Nadal fell in the semis to another wrist problem prone Del Potro. His consolation came in the Men's Doubles by wining the Gold with Marc Lopez.
2017 began well for Nadal, reaching the finals of the Australian Open, where he had a break in the fifth set against a resurgent Federer, only to lose to him twice so far this year, in Indian Wells final as well. However, Rafa came to reach his comfort zone in his beloved clay court at Montecarlo, winning unprecedented 10 titles there and followed by victories in Barcelona, Madrid Masters and the big flagship of all clay court titles: The French Open. His 15th Grand Slam title after three years of drought.
However, at Wimbledon, Nadal was seeded fourth and started his early rounds very promising. Playing good grass court tennis. Then, in the fourth round, he met Gilles Muller of Luxembourg, and inexplicably began to play defense on a grass court, standing way behind the baseline to receive Muller's big lefty serves and allowing him to open up the court and pinned Nadal down most of the match. Not once did Nadal offer Muller a different look in his return stance. Even though, Nadal had several chances to break in the fifth set he was incapapable to break Muller due to his poor court position on the grass of Wimbledon, losing 13-15 in the fifth set.
At the 2017 US Open, Nadal was seeded one for the first time at this tournament. He looked good through the first round against Serbia's number two player, Dusan Lajovic, beating him in straight sets. But in the second round, Nadal played a Japanese ranked 129 in the world, Taro Daniel, and predictably played way behind the baseline and consequently dropped the first set. Nevertheless, after some competitive matches in the early rounds Nadal found his timing and confidence and exploded into the finals where he defeated a resurgent Kevin Anderson, to win his 16th and counting Grand Slam. That victory assured him the number ONE ranking for the rest of 2017 and parts of 2018. Unfortunately, at Australian Open Nadal had to retire in the fourth round with a new injury.
He is expected to return to competition in late February, 2018, however he most likely will lose the # 1 ranking to Roger Federer, who seems younger every day.