What if Not Even Clay Can Get Us Rafael Nadal Back... - UBITENNIS
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What if Not Even Clay Can Get Us Rafael Nadal Back…

The defeat to Cuevas in Rio confirms Rafael Nadal started his clay court season with two defeats in two tournaments and no final reached. Those waiting to see the Spaniard back to his best on his favourite surface were disappointed. What if not even clay can have the Spaniard back to where he belongs in men’s tennis? What can the future hold for the 14-time Grand Slam champion?

Ivan Pasquariello

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At the end of 2015 tennis fans and experts were happy to announce that Rafael Nadal was officially back. After the struggle, the injuries, the nerves, the 14-time Grand Slam champion closed the season in the top 5 and with a semi-final appearance at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London. Confident on his progresses, Rafael admitted not to be feeling those nerves that had stopped him from performing at his best during the year, those were gone for good. Anxious to put the progress into use, Nadal also proclaimed he was not going to be taking a long holiday, but rather get back to tennis to prepare the 2016 season after less than a month, to make sure to continue on the right path.

 

It seemed the drive and the new restless formula were working just fine with Rafael, as he started the year reaching the final in Doha. Then it seems something switched off. Looking at it, putting ourselves in Nadal’s shoes, it would be easier to understand. Working hard and making progress, seeing results kicking in, to then being trashed on court by your biggest rival in your first final of the year. That would be utterly frustrating. In the last act of the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, the Serb Novak Djokovic didn’t just beat Nadal, he dominated the court looking as if he knew before where the Spaniard would hit the next shot, as he had a game plan in mind he knew would never fail him.

Following that defeat, the season continued for Rafael with a first-round defeat at the Australian Open against Verdasco and now two semi-finals appearances on clay, at Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. The comeback on clay, anticipated with an appearance in Argentina to cut the time short, has brought not titles and no finals to the undisputed king of clay. What now? The optimistic Nadal fans and tennis experts – as Rafael’s presence is an incentive to follow the sport no matter the fan base – have now started wondering. What if not even clay can get us Rafael Nadal back?

The start of 2015 against the start of 2016

It’s surprising to think that the 2015 season was for months defined as a step back for the Spaniard, considering how he failed to win a Masters 1000 title on clay and lost the second match of his career at the French Open to Djokovic. If 2015 was a step back, then 2016 could seem even more worrying. While in 2015 Nadal had reached the quarters at the Australian Open and won the title in Buenos Aires, in 2016 Rafael was upset by Dominc Thiem and Pablo Cuevas in his first two clay court appearances. It is a fact that Nadal’s 2016 season has officially started on a low note.

Suddenly talks about the future of the Spaniard have once again shifted from utter optimistic visions onto catastrophic predictions.

“If Nadal will not stay on top of the game, he will retire”

“Nadal will never win another French Open title”

“The King of Clay abdicated”

Those are just few of the quotes you can find online these days as Nadal tries to reassess his start and is probably already working on what his next moves will be.

One thing we learned from sports media is that most of the time the declarations of failing are most likely the expression of a fear of abandon. No one wants to see Rafael hang his racquet to the hook yet, no one wants to admit to themselves the end of an era is catching close. And so we proclaim the end before it hits us, to make sure we will be ready to face the reality of the sport prepared. Is this really want we need to do? Get ready for the end of Rafael Nadal?

At Ubi Tennis we prefer to see things on a more rational note…

An analysis of Rafael and his clay court game 

Rafael lost two hard fought matches in Buenos Aires and in Rio de Janeiro, both being matches he could have ended up winning. For instance if Thiem’s deep forehand at deuce in Argentina was called out when the Austrian was serving down 4-5 in the third set, maybe we would be writing a very different story. More than 3 hours fought on court against Cuevas are the blatant showing of a tough match and hard fought battle.

Truth is, if Nadal had won both of these matches, titles such as “The King of Clay is back” would have resonated loud and clear on the net, welcoming the Spaniard right back. At the end of the day, Nadal could have won both matches and go ahead to win both titles, as it seemed in his cords he had the tennis to do so. But he didn’t, he lost both battles and doubts raise with wonders.

Nadal has been and surely is one of the toughest competitors on the ATP tour; someone able to fight for 5 hours and still send every ball back knowing he would have a chance to win. Has Rafael lost his fight? I don’t think so. Is he dealing with a low level of confidence? Surely. The shots are there, so is the drive, but the lack of confidence doesn’t allow the forehand to cause major damage as it used to do before. The legs don’t move as fast, under the conviction that every point isn’t lost and every ball is indeed reachable. The serve doesn’t fire on the line when it needs to do so. But Nadal is a top 5 player, why wouldn’t he be confident? Because for someone used to win titles in double digits many years, to finish a 2015 season with three titles and no major or Masters 1000 triumph hurts, as it would hurt any champion deep in his core.

After all, tennis is well known as being a very mental game, possibly the hardest sport on a mental point of view. But things can change, unexpectedly, rapidly, in one week or two days. Look at Sara Errani winning the title in Dubai. She thought she won’t make it to the tournament, was crying when down in the third set against Madison Brengle thinking she was done. Then something clicked and the Italian is back at smiling.

That is just one of the most recent cases and definitively something that could be happening to Nadal soon. It is a shot at a positivist approach to the matter, but why can’t it be like that? Why does it have to be easier to condemn and solemnly announc the end if the end is yet to come?

What could change

At the current state of things, I believe Nadal could consider something major, a big change in his routine. If Rafael doesn’t want to dire uncle Toni, what about having a legend next to him to co-work with Toni the way Becker has done with Vajda and Djokovic? Nadal has always had an immense love for tennis and its history, therefore having a champion of the past believing in him and cheering him up in his box could work as a strong incentive to get Nadal newly excited about things. It would be a fresh start without cutting the strings to his past and his habits.

Or it could be a tournament win to change Nadal’s season all over again. A Masters 1000 coming unexpected, following in the unpredictability of the sport. After all, who had seen the 2014 US Open men’s final coming? A change is always there, and Nadal wants to make sure to be there when his time will come, because it will come again.

And the confidence rebuilding will push the lift on the forehand stronger, pushing the ball higher. The legs will work faster and the determination fly high.

After all, if Rafael had a feeling he would have been done, he would have left it all and got to the nice life that awaits him with his family at home.

And yes, if that Masters 1000 win had to come somewhere, it is most likely to come on clay, because opponents do still fear him on that surface, more than anywhere else.

The season is long, the bells of worrying have rang, but if not clay, there will be something more taking Nadal back to the top. Yet, again…

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US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major

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Serena Williams - US Open (photo Twitter @usopen)

After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.

 

The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.

That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of  Shelby’s biggest fans.

LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?

Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.

Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.

Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.

WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN

The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.

Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.

But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.

With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played  in the last 19 games Monday night.

WHO’S NEXT IN LINE

So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.

And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.

Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.

WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!

Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep. 

The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.

At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.

So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.

NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE

Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.

Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.

And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.

Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.

And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.

My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.

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James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award  for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?

Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.

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Rafael Nadal (@usopen - Twitter)

Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.

 

The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.

It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.

However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.

Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.

The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.

However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.

“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.

“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.

“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.

“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”

Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.

Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.

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Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?

Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.

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Iga Swiatek (@TennisHandshake - Twitter)

The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.

 

First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.

However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.

After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.

Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.

But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.

As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.

“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.

“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit. 

“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”

It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.

It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.

The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.

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