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Myth or man: Why is Rafael Nadal a protected species?

The Roar logo The Roar 14-03-2015 Karlo Tychsen
Rafael Nadal has been one of the best players of this generation. © Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports Rafael Nadal has been one of the best players of this generation.

Rafael Nadal has not beaten a top-10 ATP player since June in 2014. How many people knew that?

My guess is that the answer is the same as the number of top-10 players that Rafa has beaten in the last nine months. That is, zero.

My theory as to why you didn’t know this fact is because the media have not reported it.

My conspiracy theory as to why the media have not reported it? Well, I have one, but I won’t prejudice the rest of this article by airing it now.

Nine months. That’s a pretty long time. A lot happens in nine months. Heck, entire new lives are created and born in the space of nine months. But one thing that has not happened, at least in the last nine months, is Rafael Nadal emerging victorious after coming up against a top-10 player on a tennis court.

The last time he faced off with a top-10 player, he got dominated in straight sets with the double bagel. Making it even worse, that loss was to a player he’d beaten 17 times in a row. In the tradition of Vitas Gerulaitis, the lesson was learnt: nobody beats Thomas Berdych 18 times in a row.

In all honesty, these are both disturbing and revealing statistics about Rafa.

Consider this: in 2009, the season of Roger Federer’s 28th birthday, the same age as Nadal is at the moment, he was winning his maiden French Open and yet another Wimbledon title. In 2010 Federer won the Australian Open just for good measure.

Since that French Open final, Rafa has not even made a final, let alone won more slams. And he’s also just been struggling to compete, when you factor in his loss to Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon, his failure to compete at the US Open, and his wholly perplexing loss to future Hall of Famer Michael Berrer in Round 1 at Doha in early 2015.

To paraphrase my beloved Craig Foster: that’s a massive statistic. It’s huge. It is huge.

Yet here we all sit, eulogising how it is Federer, not the younger Nadal, who is in terminal decline.

You remember Roger Federer, don’t you? You know how everyone expects Nadal to win on clay? Well, it wasn’t that long ago we expected Roger to win on any surface.

In case anyone has forgotten, Roger’s won more men’s singles grand slam titles than anyone else. He finished 2014 as the number two player in the world, won his record sixth Swiss indoor title, 82nd title overall, and recently registered 1,000 career wins.

Today he’s doing better than big Rafa at a much more advanced age. He’s that old, he remembers playing some of the past greats like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Thomas Muster. Federer has been around that long he remembers a time when, as a young rapscallion in the early stages of an ATP tour career, Marc Rosset was the big-name numero uno in Swiss tennis.

Remember Marc Rosset? Me neither, but Fed does. And that was a long time ago, when he was only 18 years old. Now, he’s a ripening vintage age of 33.

Yes, 33 years of age. In human years, not in dog years.

The declining Federer is performing better than another player five years his junior. Yet it is Federer who apparently needs to be concerned about his legacy.

Not Nadal. Oh no, he’s fine. The man has won 14 singles grand slams. He’s about to win his eleventy-squillionth clay court event, he’ll shortly win yet another French, he’s got five years on the Fed. It’s really just a matter of time.

Which brings me back to the last nine months.

By the logic used by most, if a 33-year-old Federer is so seriously in decline (and to be sure, he’s not dominating like he did in the early 2000s), but he is performing better than an at-peak-age Nadal, then surely the clock is ticking more loudly for the Spaniard than the Swiss.

(Something of an irony considering what the Swiss know about clocks.)

However, make no mistake, when you are failing to beat anyone in the top 10 for such a lengthy period, it’s concerning. I don’t care what arguments you want to say about schedules, surfaces, timing, injuries: nine months and you can’t beat anyone unless they are at least seven ranks below you cannot be explained away, beyond being completely out of form and, quite possibly, in decline.

Which then questions whether Nadal is the odds-on certainty to win the next French, or any more grand slams for that matter.

Now, granted, you can’t write-off champions. You do so at your own peril. But everyone’s time comes. Everyone’s.

The Fed has admitted as much. He has re-jigged his schedule to focus on majors. He even withdrew from the ATP end of season tour final because of long-term (and short-term) concern for his own physical welfare.

There are a lot of opinions on this topic. If you’re ever bored, or lonely, go over to the ATP website, click on an article about Federer, Nadal or Novak Djokovic, and read the comments. That stuff makes Real Housewives look placid. And if it ever got out that I was focusing on Nadal’s failure over nine months, I’d have to change my address and phone number. So it is certainly only one of several ways of looking at a defined period of time.

Of course, it is a perspective that I did not come up with on my own. At least, not when it comes to Nadal.

An intense focus on a player failing to beat top-10 players was a perspective that the media decided to take with Andy Murray. Remember when he couldn’t beat a top-10 player after Wimbledon in 2013? The media made a big sound about that one.

They haven’t about Nadal.

And then you can perhaps start to sympathise with Murray when he takes an injury time-out, but is called a cry baby. When Nadal does the same, he’s a hero for playing through the pain.

Something doesn’t add up.

Why is nine-time French Open Champion, 28-year-old, perpetually injured Nadal cocooned from criticism?

Why is the more successful player, five years the senior of Nadal, who is performing better, in decline, yet Nadal is surely just shortly going to be the greatest of all time?

Why is Murray soft, and Nadal brave?

And finally, why did I have to hear that Nadal cannot beat top 10 players anymore from a friend who loves his tennis, rather than reading about it in one of the bigger sports publishers?

It is beyond me, and I would love to say I have answers, but I don’t. I only have a conspiracy theory.

My theory is that the media have not reported Nadal as the mythical creature he is because the last nine months is merely emblematic for the better part of 10 years the media have spent protecting a one-surface wonder in an attempt to create a manufactured competition with one of the greatest athletes to grace a sporting field, Roger Federer, for the completely superficial and nonsensical battle for title of ‘greatest of all time’.

Of course, a truly good conspiracy theory can never be proven. So here’s what I do know: just as in 2009 Federer could not fairly be called the greatest, nor is it fair to say that of Nadal. Time alone will tell these things.

And time may well tell us that Nadal is presently in trouble. Big trouble. Until then? Well, it appears nobody else will.

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