COUNTDOWN TO 2012
Countdown To 2012 - Nadal Confronts Djokovic Challenge
by James Buddell|
ATPWorldTour.com concludes its 'Countdown to 2012' series by looking at the impact Rafael Nadal could have in the upcoming season.
Rafael Nadal had a great 2011. No question. The Spaniard reached three major finals - lifting a record-equalling sixth Roland Garros trophy - and seven other title matches. Unfortunately, Novak Djokovic had an even better year.
Nadal's reality is that on the eve of the 2012 ATP World Tour season, the World No. 2 finds himself 4,035 South African Airways ATP Rankings points behind the Serbian.
He must find a way to reverse a six-final losing streak against Djokovic. That prospect will only come about by winning matches, beating Top 10 rivals and reaching finals. Tantalisingly, one victory over Djokovic could trigger another stellar year, such as his trophy-ladened 2008 or 2010. Only then, can Nadal think of mounting a challenge for World No. 1.
Neither goal will be easy. Sport at the very highest level, never is. Nadal realises that Djokovic won't wilt under the weight, or in the afterglow, of his magnificent 2011. Roger Federer will mount his own bid for a return to World No. 1; Andy Murray, will shoot for his first major title, and other players will also have goals to fulfil.
In any walk of life, rivalries and competitiveness are necessary to realise one's full capabilities. The two get magnified in sport. Over the past seven years, the tennis world has savoured Nadal and Federer's fascinating match-ups. Fans have debated their similarities, their differences and how in the heat of the battle, each player has attempted to express himself freely and instinctively.
Nadal leads Federer 17-9 in their FedEx ATP Head 2 Head series, but Djokovic is Nadal's latest challenge to supremacy. The 24-year-old Serbian took the sport to a higher level in 2011, moved to 13-16 lifetime against Nadal and made the threat of failure harder to bear for the 10-time major winner.
The duopoly at the top of the South African Airways ATP Rankings was condemned to the history books in 2011. As a result, Nadal and Federer were forced to improve. Speaking to El Pais, the Spanish newspaper this week, Nadal, refreshingly, admitted, "Many times [this year], I had the feeling that I had no control of my matches".
Nadal, like Federer, is too resilient, too competitive, not to overcome this mental hurdle. As Brad Gilbert said in the latest FedEx Reliability Zone column, "belief and confidence are almost like brothers. When you have both, you just feel like you will always find a way to win. Djokovic didn't have it against Nadal before, but in 2011 he got it."
Speaking right at the end of his press conference, after his final match, at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, in November, Nadal tellingly told reporters, "Experience tells me the changes [that I need to make] are just small things. But these small things, change - at the end of the day - a lot of things.
"That's what I have to do: work hard; work hard every day, morning [and] afternoon. I'm going to have my chance for next year to be competitive to win the big tournaments. I will do it. If it's not enough, it's not going to be enough. But I will be satisfied with myself."
You can be certain that Nadal's fitness, concentration and drive will be at their optimum levels when he returns to the lion's den at his first tournament of 2012, the Qatar ExxonMobil Open, next week in Doha.
By playing more aggressively, inside the court and varying his forehand placement in baseline rallies, Nadal will be prepared for the sport's physical and mental demands against the best players in 2012. Adding extra zip to his serve, as highlighted so effectively at the 2010 US Open, will also boost his chances of adding to his 102 weeks at World No. 1.
This is backed up by statistics. According to Nadal's RICOH ATP MatchFacts in 2010, he hit 310 aces and won 75 per cent of his first service points. He won 90 per cent of his service games, saving 69 per cent of his 322 break points. Fast forward 12 months, and there is a difference. Nadal struck 267 aces, hit one more double fault (121), won 71 per cent of his first serves and 80 per cent of his service games. He saved 64 per cent of his 436 break points.
Historically, the heart of the tennis season is Nadal's strongest period. The Mallorcan is 231-18 lifetime on clay and he is also 48-10 on grass courts, with a 2-3 record in Wimbledon finals. "From Indian Wells to Wimbledon and the Olympic Games in London, that's where I have to be my best," Nadal told El Pais. No sacrifice is too great and in 2012, Nadal will be determined to re-assert his greatness.