Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest players of all-time. There’s no question about that. However, if not for injuries, it’s quite possible that Nadal could have been the undisputed greatest of all-time. Instead, Nadal currently finds himself near the bottom of the top ten, slamless and Masters 1000 titleless over the last twelve months for the first time since early 2005, fighting to stay relevant on the tour. He’s only twenty-nine. Meanwhile, 34-year-old Roger Federer just won the Cincinnati Masters, recently reached the Wimbledon final and is heading into the US Open as the number two ranked player in the world. Nadal is five years younger than his Swiss rival, and yet seems likely to retire sooner. How has this happened? The answer is actually quite simple.
Nadal’s brutal, physical, never-say-die style of tennis has worn down his body.
Federer may be older in years, but you would never know it looking at him. Physically, he’s in pretty good shape. Nadal, on the other hand, has aged well beyond his years. The reason for this is style of play. Federer is aggressive, plays shorts points, and is light on his feet. Nadal digs deep and treads heavy on the court. While this style has made him arguably the toughest player to play against on the ATP World Tour over the last decade, it’s also set him on the path for an early retirement.
To be fair, that brutal, physical style of play has done great things for Rafa. Fourteen Grand Slam titles, a career Golden Slam, a record nine French Open titles and over one-hundred weeks at number one. There is no one on the ATP World Tour who can be said to have had Nadal’s number (except 2011 Novak Djokovic, but Nadal solved that problem). Most of the ATP calls Nadal their toughest opponent, mainly because he fights harder than anyone else. He’s regarded as possibly the greatest fighter in tennis history. And that’s unlikely to change.
Nadal never stops fighting. That’s the problem. He runs and runs and hits the ball as hard as he can. And he gets every ball. He never gives his body a break. He explodes off the court. He treats every point as if it was his last. A commentator during the 2013 Mutua Madrid Open once said of Nadal that he always forces his opponent to hit one more shot. He will chase down every ball and force his opponent to hit one that Nadal physically cannot return. If he can reach the ball, no matter how hard he has to run and how much strain it puts on his body, Nadal will return the ball. Fourteen years of chasing down the extra ball seems to finally be stopping the raging bull from Mallorca.
It’s been evident throughout Nadal’s career that his physical style would be the cause of his demise on the tour. He’s had double the number of injuries by the age of twenty-nine that Roger Federer has had at thirty-four. And the injuries started early. He missed the clay court season in 2004 with a stress fracture in his ankle. A foot injury ended his breakout 2005 season and forced him to miss the early stages of 2006. Chronic knee injuries started not long after that. For years, Nadal would be seen sporting tape under his knees to combat tendonitis. This peaked in the summer of 2009, when he was unable to defend his Wimbledon crown due to a knee injury.
The same injury forced him to miss seven months in 2012-2013. He also had an abdominal injury at the 2009 US Open. 2014 saw a back injury cost him a second Australian Open title and limit his ability to compete at his highest level. While his appendicitis in the fall of 2014 isn’t necessarily a tennis injury, it wouldn’t be surprising if it was caused by the strain he puts on his body. While his fall in form in 2015 hasn’t been attributed to a specific injury, he was suffering from shoulder trouble during his title run in Hamburg in July. It was not the first time that Nadal had issues with his shoulder. Knees, feet, knees, back, knees, shoulders, knees, abdominals, more knees. Even for a tennis player, the number of injuries sustained by Rafael Nadal is absurd. It’s a clear result of his highly physical style of play.
While Nadal’s struggles in 2015 have not been the direct result of one specific injury the way his struggles in 2009, 2012 and 2014 were, that doesn’t mean that his fall in form is not because of his style of play. It probably is. At twenty-nine, Rafael Nadal has put more miles on his body than most players have by that age. In fact, he’s probably done more damage to his body by twenty-nine than most players do in their entire careers. At the end of the day, the human body is only capable of playing at a certain level for so long. Rafael Nadal has used up most of his physical ability early by never giving up and putting incredible strain on his body. There may not be one specific injury slowing him down the way there has been in the past, but his body is just not capable of performing the way it once was because Nadal has worn it down over the last decade at the top of the tennis world.
Compare Nadal to Federer. Five years Nadal’s senior, Federer is in considerably better shape physically than his younger Spanish rival. The reason for this is that Federer does not play the same physically demanding style that Nadal does. Federer plays hard, yes. But he doesn’t put the same amount of strain on his body. He’s lighter on his feet, so he doesn’t slam down on the court as much and do the same damage to his feet and knees. He also doesn’t run as hard and chase down every ball, so he’s covered less distance than Nadal and, considering the fact that he’s lighter on his feet, hasn’t beaten up his own body the same way. He’s less worn out than Nadal which is why he’s still at the top of his game at thirty-four, while Nadal is looking almost finished at twenty-nine.
If Nadal’s body is truly worn out, it’s hard to see him bouncing back. Federer had some struggles with injury in 2013 and has since rebounded, but Nadal’s style is unlikely to facilitate a similar rebound. Federer’s back injury in 2013 was one of his rare injuries. Other than that, Federer was in good shape and had been throughout his career, so bouncing back from a single injury, despite being thirty-four, wasn’t too challenging. But because Nadal has been constantly plagued by style-inflicted injuries, it’s hard to see him bouncing back. His body simply cannot take any more of this.
For him to stay relevant, he would need to drastically change his style of play. His body simply cannot grind from the baseline anymore. You can see it in his game currently. He can’t cover the court the same way. He can’t overpower opponents the same way. His once devastating forehand has lost its bite. For a while, Nadal was claiming that he was struggling mentally. He’s stopped saying that recently. That’s probably because he’s playing as well as his body will allow him. The problem is that his body has simply taken too much of a beating over the last ten years of blasting off the baseline.
If not for the injuries, Rafael Nadal would almost certainly be the all-time Grand Slam title leader. Had he been healthy, he probably would have claimed the 2009 French Open and maybe the 2009 Wimbledon Championship. Maybe he would have had a shot at the Grand Slam at the 2009 US Open. He almost certainly would have contended for a Grand Slam at the 2010 Australian Open, which would have preceded his three-slam sweep during 2010. He could have perhaps completed his Rafa Slam at the 2011 Aussie Open had he not pulled him hamstring in the quarter-finals. Would his 2013 hard court form have started in Melbourne that year if he’d been healthy? Maybe.
He certainly would have had a golden opportunity to claim a second Aussie title if not for his back in 2014. And most importantly, had he not broken down his body so early, Nadal would probably still be competing for slams today and in future years. Instead, he’s not only a long shot at the upcoming US Open, but it seems as though his odds of taking sole possession of second on the all-time slam list is unlikely, let alone catching Federer. Rafael Nadal is one of the most admirable athletes on the planet. Even if his style is not to your taste, it’s almost impossible to not appreciate his fighting spirit. It seems almost unfair that playing with so much heart may have cost Rafael Nadal even further greatness.