As Nadal fans everywhere mourn the loss of the Australian Open final and struggle to manage their disbelief at a seventh consecutive loss to Djokovic with extreme fatigue on a Monday morning there are two important points to take away:
1) He almost won
2) The crippling depth of the Djokovic return can only be combated by more effective serving from Nadal
Yes, at 4-2 Nadal should have put that backhand volley away and it should have been 5-2 game over but sadly that’s not the way the story ended. The positive side of it is that Rafa fought.
A renowned warrior, Nadal battled the crippling mental effects of Djokovic’s previous victories and was almost consumed by it until he flicked a switch in his head at the beginning of the fourth set and went for broke. It may have been a case of too little too late but Rafael tapped into something we haven’t seen in him in some time.
Over the past 12 months Nadal’s dwindling confidence despite strong results has slowly hampered his game. He should have won Wimbledon, he was the better player leading into the finals but he did what I don’t remember ever seeing from him before – he choked.
I’m hesitant to call the second and third set last night a choke as well but the truth is Rafa had a set lead and instead of playing more ferociously he reverted to his standard A-Game that simply fails against Novak. He knows this, we know this and Novak knows this.
The thing I took away from last night that is invaluable in my opinion is that finally a way to beat Novak was revealed. Rafa was not gifted the sub-par Djokovic that Andy Murray was in the semi finals and yet still there was hope.
The first key to Djokovic is having so much success against Nadal because he’s cracking his returns and having them land on or near the baseline, almost catching Nadal in No Man’s Land repeatedly as he lands from his serve. The strength Novak has been able to harness by accelerating through the ball has neutralised any benefit Nadal gets from his heavy spinning serve.
The body serve, when used appropriately, was effective against Novak but Nadal needs a cheap point, or at least a chance to get into a rally. Having to hit a half volley on the baseline as you land from your serve just isn’t going to end well.
Rafa has no choice but to change his grip like he did for the US Open in 2010 to try and get that extra 15kmph on his serve.
Rafa’s body oozes power courtesy of his brilliant athletic genetic make up and while his heavy spin can be violently effective he has always been better when he flattened the ball out – just a little. When this happens the Nadal forehand is a force to be reckoned with.
Nadal simply must find more penetration on the serve and then it will be much harder for Novak to return the ball on the baseline every single time and Nadal will have more of a chance to play the point he wants to.
There is an extraordinary amount of power to be harness in Rafa and he has to use it on his serve and to pummel his forehand more effectively (a shot that has become a bit passive in the last 12 months). If he can use his natural gifts more effectively he will spend less time on the court and experience less wear and tear.
The only other way in for Nadal is to stand on the baseline to receive serve. Sure he may take a few hits and get burnt a few times but sooner rather than later he will find his range and start cracking more winners and finding more cheap points. He has to be more aggressive and not just against Novak.
If we learnt anything from last night it is that Rafa is more than capable of exceeding Roger Federer’s 16 Grand Slams. Realistically Rafa should be up to 11 or 12 by now.
This gutsy Spanish workhorse could exceed that which the thoroughbred has achieved if he can make changes, particularly to his serve, and if he is more conservative with his schedule. If he refuses to play one or two of the mandatory tournaments he will extend his playing career and will be in a better position to prevent and manage injuries.
Only time will tell how long it will take for Rafa to make these changes but Novak, be warned, he’s coming for you.