As the 2012 season begins, renowned tennis coach Patrick Mouratoglou is previewing the upcoming year for the top five players in men's tennis. Today, he begins with Rafael Nadal and his road back to No. 1.
This will be an essential year for Rafael Nadal. He lost a lot in 2011: His No. 1 ranking, his US Open and Wimbledon titles and his domination on clay. That was painful enough. But knowing that there was a guy on the other side of the net who was better than him? That made it even harder for the sensitive Spaniard.
In order to understand better how Rafa feels, we need to look back so you realize how outstanding he was. The Spaniard won everything, of course, but even more than that, he never stopped to move forward. Not a single player was really an issue for him in the past. Each time he lost he found a solution to get his revenge in the next match.
When he started, his main goal was to win the French Open. Once achieved, he decided to focus on Wimbledon, a much different tournament. Rafa changed his technique and won in his second finals appearance there.
It was all good until this terrible losing streak against Novak Djokovic. The Serbian crushed Nadal six times in a row on finals. Nadal lost some of his length of shot since Djokovic knows how to play inside the court and how to take the ball early in order to avoid being upset by Rafa's topsin. He's struggling on his forehand in front of those accelerations with flat and long shots. On each opportunity, Nole is attacking this side, forcing Nadal to play shorter in order to then dictate the point.
The Spaniard hates being stuck on his backhand diagonal, because he prefers dictating with his forehand while turning around his backhand. But the Serbian, with his topspin forehand, can take Rafa out of the court and is able to force Rafa to remain on his backhand. And then he's searching for all the shorter balls in order to attack.
Finally, Rafa's second serve is often lacking length and weight, so Novak knows how to take advantage of it in order to take the lead of the point. As if it wasn't already enough, Djoko perfectly studied Rafa's game and knows beforehand the sequences he likes. It's how he knows each time how to counterpunch him, by anticipating some stereotyped tactical options.
But beyond those results, Rafa looked resigned. He wasn't able to find the solution, whether it was on hard courts, grass, and even on clay. Those failures attacked his mind, usually his strong suit. Even he admitted "he didn't believe enough against Djokovic." So, after winning the technical and tactical fight, the Serbian also has Rafa's mind.
In order to regain his confidence, Nadal will have to improve in some areas:
• The serve. Even if it has already improved, remains something he has to get stronger on. His percentage of points won on his first serve isn't enough, with 71 percent during the year. Against someone returning as well as Djokovic, this percentage is going down and Rafa struggles. To improve on this, he will have to work on his rhythm and playing loose on the wrist so he can speed up the whip.
• The backhand. Even if this shot has also improved, it's still too fragile and Novak is using the diagonal on this shot in order to take the lead on the point. Rafa will have to be better set on the ground and to better transfer his body weight.
• Ball length/direction. The Spaniard must find more length of striking. If he fails, he will be exposed to the aggression of Djokovic's attack. In order to get this needed length, he has to play with more margin regarding the net. Beyond the advantage it offers length wise, it is also an advised way to slow the game in front of a counterpuncher like Djokovic. It's better to slow the points down than to speed them up because Djokovic thrives on the speed and can do it even better than Nadal
• The strategy: Nadal's game is an open book. He's often predictable, but his sequences are so efficient that it's never easy to counter them. So now, Rafa's challenge is to use his forehand in the most efficient way, and it'd be even better by turning around his backhand. On this position on the court that he loves, it's very rare for him not to end with a winner because he can touch all the zones. So he'll have to tactically find how to get in the position most of the time.
As far as I'm concerned, this year will be decisive for Rafael Nadal. If his motivation level remains lower than during the previous years, due to the Djokovic failures mentioned above, then he'll be in danger. His game relies on his mind. Rafa needs to find the way back to victory, and fast. He knows it, he wants it. But will he be able to do it?