For a player who is both admired and envied by athletes worldwide for being one of the mentally toughest out there, it is unsettling to hear Rafael Nadal admit to being overcome by nerves.
The world No3 suffered his earliest Miami exit in nine years when he fell to Fernando Verdasco in the third round on Sunday and the Spaniard confessed that it was due to his inability to relax on court.
Granted, Verdasco played some great tennis for large stints of the match but Nadal misfired so many times, netting easy volleys, mis-hitting numerous balls and committing an uncharacteristic 32 unforced errors.
There was a sense of hesitancy in Nadal’s shots and that lack of conviction allowed Verdasco to post just his second career victory over his countryman in 15 meetings. You know something is definitely wrong when Nadal hits a mere nine forehand winners in a three-set match.
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) March 29, 2015
But the 14-time grand slam champion isn’t blaming his shaky performance on lack of form. He is no longer referring to his injury and health troubles from last season as an excuse for rustiness, nor is he lacking match play like the start of the season. In his own words, this loss was about anxiety more than anything else.
The 28-year-old says he’s been used to keeping his emotions under control in “95 per cent” of his matches yet somehow he currently finds himself unable to maintain that calmness.
“I was playing with too much nerves. I was anxious on court,” he said. While the words ‘Nadal’ and ‘nerves’ haven’t usually gone together in the past, it is not surprising the Mallorcan is experiencing such feelings on court.
Several champions have previously explained how nerves started to creep into their game as they got older and more experienced. With all the physical issues Nadal has dealt with over the past several seasons, it’s only natural that his outlook has changed.
Nadal: “At this point in my career, I’ve won enough things to say I don’t need to win more, but I want to do it” pic.twitter.com/9NNUOxP9rt
— Luigi Gatto (@LuisGatTWI) March 30, 2015
It must have been easier for him to be bold and fearless when he was 19 and winning the French Open on debut. But now, when he’s seen both sides of the spectrum – the thrill of dominance and agony of injury, constantly oscillating between both, the stakes must seem much higher for Nadal each time he takes to the court.
He may be just 28, but with the masses continuously predicting an early retirement, is it getting tougher for Nadal to shut out his sceptics? A reporter asked him if he would consider hiring a sports psychologist and Nadal quickly discarded the suggestion.
“Tennis is not a big deal in life. It’s sport, a game. That’s not that much important,” he said.
For someone whose fighting ability on each and every point has resembled someone fighting for his life, it is strange to think that Nadal doesn’t think his tennis is serious enough to warrant professional help. That’s not to say he isn’t willing to solve his problems.
Nadal kicks into another gear whenever his back is against the wall. He changed his game when he needed to, improved on other surfaces, and has come back from career-threatening injuries.
In his post-match press conference on Sunday, he vowed to fix his current issue. He doesn’t know how or when, but he knows he’ll do it. History has shown that he most probably will.