Rafael Nadal capped off on average year – by his standard – on a high by playing a pivotal role in Spain’s fifth Davis Cup triumph on Sunday. The country event takes a backseat in players’ and fans’ priority list but that should in no way undermine the achievement. In fact considering the turnaround the 2010 Davis Cup win brought about in Novak Djokovic’s fortunes, you can’t fault Nadal’s fans for already sitting with their fingers crossed and praying for a similar success story for the Spaniard the next season.
We all have our own individual favourites that we root for tournament after tournament. However, despite the biases there are certain stand-out qualities that even the harshest of critics are forced to appreciate in certain players. It could be Federer’s grace or the way he makes every shot look so effortless or Roddick’s serve or Djokovic’s all-court game or in Nadal’s case, his tenacity. The determination to get to every shot, to wear down his opponents, to make them go the extra mile for that winner and the never give-up attitude are all the traits that have for long defined Nadal’s on-court persona and endeared him to one and all.
There is hardly a player more driven than Nadal, who needs no outside motivation to get fired up. The World No.2 has evidently never been the most naturally talented or skilled player but his mental toughness gave him the quality that matters the most for winning. Yes, above talent and skill. And, to take that away from Nadal seemed almost impossible, that is until this season. Among Djokovic’s many accomplishments in 2011 the one that got lost in all the statistics and numbers is the psychological damage the Serbian managed to cause to one of the mentally strongest sportsmen ever.
When Djokovic beat Nadal thrice in a row in the final of clay tournaments, a surface where Nadal is the king, he not only hit him hard, he hit him unexpectedly. When Nadal had conquered Federer at Wimbledon in 2008, it was in the coming but Djokovic’s dominance came like a bolt from the blue. Nadal was unprepared for such capitulation as were all of us. And, it reflected in his performance in tournaments in the second half of the season following the clay bashing by Djokovic.
Many would argue that a player can’t win title after title, like Nadal did in 2010 (so did Djokovic in 2011), every season and hence people shouldn’t read too much into his losses this year. It is too early to lose hope or write him off after just one average season. It sure is. But truth be told it wasn’t his losses that were worrisome, it was the way he lost. There were times he was seen giving up hope of winning a match after falling way behind. The old conviction of ‘I can win from any position’, ‘as long as the match is not lost it is not lost,’ was missing. And, Nadal without this mindset can not be half the player he has been for some years now.
Nadal dominates a player as much mentally as he does physically and with his own confidence shattered he could have hardly been expected to control the play as he has become accustomed to doing. His passion for the sport and hunger for winning is as Barney would say 'legendary' but even that seemed to be lacking in the second half of the season and Nadal admitted as much after failing to even make the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals. "Probably I had a little bit less passion for the game and probably because I was a little bit more tired than usual," said Nadal after his loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga that sent him packing from the Tour Finals.
Well, the season is finally done and dusted with and Nadal has a two-week break, affording his tired body and mind a breather before the start of another gruelling season. He should no doubt bounce back stronger and fitter in 2012 with his confidence back serving as an invisible partner. Here's hoping the Davis Cup triumph may only be the beginning of a Djokovicesque season for Rafa.