Those who watched Pancho Gonzales, at age 41, win a Wimbledon match in 1969 with sets of 46 (!), 30, and 20 games might regard him as the greatest fighter men’s tennis has ever known. (That 1969 match with Charlie Pasarell helped usher in the era of the tiebreaker one year later, an interesting side note to that multi-day match.)
Tennis fans who saw Jimmy Connors spill his tank over the course of many years, especially at the 1991 U.S. Open, might regard him as the ultimate mortal-combat master in this sport.
Yet, you would probably not get too much of an argument from all corners of the world if you were to say that no male tennis player has ever competed as well as Rafael Nadal Parera.
Sharing the stage with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic — two men who have combined to win 25 major titles — Nadal has managed to win 14 majors and produce winning head-to-head records against both men. Against Federer, Nadal has established pronounced and unquestioned superiority, and while Nadal’s racquet skills are not to be diminished in this discussion, it is undeniable that Nadal’s ability to defend the court represents a central reason for his 23-10 head-to-head mark against the Swiss.
Nadal, like Djokovic and Andy Murray, is always willing to hit an extra ball, to play more defense, to wait out an attacking opponent and win a point by forcing an error. Among the Big Four in this Golden Era of men’s tennis, Federer is the one player who almost exclusively prefers to win points with quick winners. He can defend when he has to, but he always prefers the quick point with the artistic flourish. Stylistically, the Nadal-Djokovic-Murray trio is far more comfortable defending the court. Those three men can all play offense if they need to, and a dialed-in version of Djokovic often becomes a noticeably offensive player, but the default setting for all three men is — and has been — a reliance on defense first.
In the short term, defense shrinks the court and unnerves the opponent. The longer game created by defense is that it serves as a tennis version of Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope tactic; after two sets, the opponent — having to throw so many roundhouse punches to get small amounts of leverage — is punched-out, exhausted and unable to continue to deliver blows with either the ferocity or precision needed to do any damage.
Great defense, executed perfectly from a base of incredibly high physical and mental fitness, is a supreme weapon in best-of-five-set tennis. Djokovic is doing this better than any other player over the past two years, but in 2013 and over the course of his full career, Nadal has exceeded Djokovic and everyone else on tour in this part of the art of tennis. To put the matter bluntly, Nadal has been the foremost example of attritional tennis in an era defined by the practice.
This is not the 1980s, when racquet and string technology had not developed to the point where shots could be regularly hit with heavy spin. A U.S. Open final between Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander might have been genuinely attritional in nature, but the texture of rallies wasn’t nearly as punishing as what we’ve seen with Nadal and Djokovic when they lock antlers and engage in tennis’s ultimate battle for manhood. Whether it was the 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final in 2012, or the 4-hour, 2-minute Madrid semifinal in 2009, or their grueling 2011 U.S. Open final in which they both pushed their bodies to the breaking point, Nadal and Djokovic just can’t help it: They LOVE the attritional aspect of tennis, equipped with the racquet technology to trade high-impact groundstrokes until the end of time.
Djokovic — because of very uneven career results through July of 2010 — did not play full weeks or fortnights of tennis in every tournament he entered. Though only one year younger than Nadal, he didn’t accumulate nearly as much tread on the tires to that point in time. It’s only in the last five years that Djokovic has been a full-tournament player at just about every event on the calendar. For this reason, Djokovic can reasonably expect to practice attritional tennis for a few more years, at least to age 30 and maybe age 31 or 32. Murray, born just a week apart from Djokovic, finds himself in a similar position.
For Nadal, though, the reality of a very discouraging 2015 season — punctuated by his second-round exit from Wimbledon on Thursday — will force the Spaniard to think about this next stage in his remarkable career. What must specifically inform Rafa’s decisions is the fact that his quality and excellence within the specific context of attritional tennis have ironically put him at a disadvantage if he wants to continue to play that way.
Nadal won his first French Open at 19. He figured out how to play well at Wimbledon in 2006, reaching his first final at SW19 one month after turning 20. By 2008, just before and after turning 22, he had become a semifinal-level hardcourt player at the majors, and in January of 2009, he won his first hardcourt major before turning 23. Nadal became a tennis expert so quickly that at age 29, he has put in a lot more work than Djokovic and Murray.
Athletes do not have unlimited odometers; to use a financial metaphor, they can’t make unlimited withdrawals from their reserves of energy. It is worth noting that in 2013, by winning the Canada and Cincinnati Masters 1000 tournaments followed by the U.S. Open, Nadal pulled off a hardcourt achievement Federer and Djokovic have failed to attain. Yet, that feat was preceded by a seven-month layoff from the sport at the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013. Nadal credited fresh legs as one of the reasons he was able to win those three hardcourt tournaments in succession.
This brings us to the heart of our discussion: Team Nadal might have legitimate options to choose from, but the choice Toni and Rafa make — whatever it turns out to be — has to respect the limits that are now more a part of Nadal’s career. It’s hard to see Rafa making a deep run at the U.S. Open, and when that tournament is over, the 2016 Australian Open will be the last remaining major tournament which will end before Nadal’s 30th birthday in June of next year. It’s a grim thought, but it’s one the Nadals have to deal with if they want to both extend Rafa’s career and get high-quality results from it.
Here’s what seems to be the basic balancing act Rafael Nadal has to pull off, in consultation with Uncle Toni: Perhaps at some points on the calendar, he can devote himself to attritional tennis and rely on that ability to see him through a tournament (the French Open and claycourt events in general). However, for any tournaments Nadal tries to attack with that attritional approach, he will have to enter other tournaments intent on shortening points and hitting more winners. Hardcourt events would seem to be made for this approach, primarily because they exact more of a toll on an aging body that has played tennis in such a forceful, physically demanding, high-impact way.
If Nadal can learn to win best-of-three-set hardcourt matches in one hour and best-of-five matches in 85 minutes, that will undeniably help him going forward. That’s not how he’s normally rolled in the past, but it’s how he can prolong his career and enjoy sustained success. It might not be a style he’s used to, and again, on clay, he can reasonably expect to win with his preferred attritional approach, but Nadal can’t go through a full tennis season, from January through mid-November, with that game plan.
Flowing from this balancing act between attritional and short-point (energy conservation) tennis, Nadal will also need to balance his tennis calendar. Based on the points in time when he decides to play attritionally and non-attritionally, Rafa has to figure out a way to give his body the right mixture of rest and match-play preparation. This is where a large number of potential combinations exist for Team Nadal, and choosing the right ones over the course of a season could make a difference over the next three to five years.
Here are some pathways the Nadals can take as they plot out a strategy for the coming years. It feels useless to establish a hierarchy of preference. It’s more fun if you weigh and consider them on your own:
1) Play Indian Wells, but non-attritionally, and then skip Miami, setting up a physically fresh Nadal for an attritional clay season in which he can load up on rankings points for the year, and also make his major-tournament stand at Roland Garros.
2) Play the Shanghai and Bercy Masters events non-attritionally, to enable Rafa to be fresh for the ATP World Tour Finals. This year, such an approach isn’t realistic, given Rafa’s place in the race to London, but if he’s in a better position at this stage in the 2016 (and 2017, and 2018) tennis season, such an approach could at least be considered.
3) Segment the clay season. Play Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid non-attritionally, saving fuel for Rome and Roland Garros, which can be played attritionally. Another option within this option: Don’t play Barcelona.
4) Place less of an emphasis on the grass season. (Nadal played two grass warm-up events this season, and it didn’t work.) Treat Wimbledon with less urgency compared to previous years and also in comparison with the other majors, given the last four years of results at The Big W.
5) Treat Wimbledon with a great deal of urgency, but come up each year with a wrinkle or twist in the game plan to give opponents a different look, something they’re not expecting. (Example: Serving from different positions on both ad and deuce points, and practicing those serves in the build-up to the tournament.)
6) Play the Canada and Cincinnati Masters in as non-attritional way as one can possibly manage.
7) Make a basic pair of commitments: If playing Federer, allow the attritional style to remain in place, given how well it has worked; if playing Djokovic outside the confines of a major tournament, make a concerted attempt to not get sucked into 35-shot slugfests and drawn-out matches which deplete the fuel tank. Playing Djokovic attritionally in Rome (right before Roland Garros) or in Canada (with the U.S. Open not too far away) would seem to be the wrong investment of energy, the wrong withdrawal from one’s bank account of stamina, at the wrong time.