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Why Rafa Nadal will rise in 2016

How far will Rafa go? (AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI)
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25th February, 2016
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Rafael Nadal’s woes are being given some serious air of late. A seemingly dismal 2015, a first round loss at the Australian Open, and two back-to-back semi-final losses on clay at the beginning of 2016 are the perfect excuse to relegate him to the annals of history.

However, critics conveniently neglect to mention Nadal had a resurgent last three months of 2015 on the indoor hard courts; his least successful surface.

Across the Asian hard court swing and Paris Masters, Nadal went from final to semi-final to final to quarter-final – his best haul in a decade.

He then had a clean sweep in the round robin of the ATP World Tour Finals, beating Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray and David Ferrer.

Then along came the Australian Open. His is demise was prophesied from the rooftops, but anyone who watched that match would agree the loss was more to do with Fernando Verdasco than Nadal.

After their 2009 semi-final, there was no way Verdasco would allow himself to lose again. He knew it, Rafa knew it, and given the ferocity with which Verdasco played, he would have beaten anyone. But it’s much more fun to condemn a champion than justify an inspired opponent.

And so we turned to the Argentina Open. The headlines will tell you Nadal inexplicably went down to a player outside the top 10. However, they fail to mention the terrible stomach problems Nadal had all week, which clearly affected his game.

Aside from this, his opponent, Dominic Thiem, who has just climbed to world No.15, played a sublime match. After an extremely tight three sets, Thiem managed to squeeze through in a third set tiebreak and backed up the result by winning the tournament. Not quite the career-crushing catastrophic loss we’re led to believe.

Next, the Rio Open. Losing to Pablo Cuevas, world No.45, was unexpected. But was it a collapse of form or lack of motivation? No. It looked to be an attack of bad nerves. And when you are Rafael Nadal, King of Clay, with the weight of the world’s expectation on your shoulders, you’re bound to feel them. Nerves plague every athlete and are hardly a career death sentence.

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Putting aside the sensationalism surrounding Rafa’s stint in South America, let’s take a look at what’s been happening around the tennis world recently.

Ferrer, world No.8 eight, was also knocked out of Argentina in the semi-finals, by world No.50 Nicolas Almagro. He was then dumped out of Rio, as defending champion, in the quarter-finals by Dominic Thiem. As for Acapulco, where he was also defending his title, he was knocked out in the second round by world No.32 Alexandr Dolgopolov.

World No.6 Kei Nishikori suffered a similar second round Acapulco upset. In Marseille, world No.7 Tomas Berdych and world No.4 Stan Wawrinka were demolished in the quarter-finals, all by players 20 or more places below them.

At the Shanghai Masters in October 2015, Roger Federer was swept aside in the second round by the then world No.70 Albert Ramos-Vinolas. At the US Open, Andy Murray was stumped in the round of 16 by the then world No.14 Kevin Anderson. Even the seemingly infallible Novak Djokovic was quashed in Doha in 2015 by Ivo Karlovic, world No.31 at the time, in the quarter-finals.

Suddenly, Rafa’s losses look less unusual.

Upsets happen. All it takes is a bad day and an inspired opponent with nothing to lose. Career ups and downs are part of the game. Federer dropped to No.7 in 2013, his lowest ranking in 11 years. Murray fell to No.10 in 2014. They bounced back. There’s every reason to suggest Nadal will do the same. He has more natural talent than anyone except Federer, a healthy body, and a will to win bordering on the obsessive-compulsive.

It is senseless to suggest, at the age of 29, Rafael Nadal’s career is even close to over. His losses are sensationalised because finally, the mighty king of the clay courts has apparently fallen.

However, if you consider he finished the year as world No.5 with three titles under his belt and clean sweep in the World Tour Finals round robin, 2015 looks like little more than a wobble. Add to that the fact he has had, across a 13-year career, almost two years absent due to injury, and still managed to amass the titles and records he has, you’d realise what a miracle he is.

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The start of 2016 hasn’t been ideal, but it hasn’t been wholly disastrous either. Tearing him apart after every less than perfect performance is pointless and crude.

While the thrill of winning is on the table, Rafa will keep on chasing that high. And soon enough, he’ll reach it.

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