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Tebbutt: Qué pasa Rafa y Nole?

Apr 23, 2019
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

There’s always an appetite among sports fans to make judgments about athletes being over the hill and past their peaks.

That’s a topical in tennis now after last week’s Monte Carlo Open when Rafael Nadal was soundly beaten 6-4, 6-2 by Fabio Fognini and Novak Djokovic was far from his best in a 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 loss to Daniil Medvedev.

It’s hard to really believe that Nadal, 33 in June, and Djokovic, 32 next month, are anywhere near disappearing from the scene as major players at the top of the game – especially in view of their past revivals from troubling circumstances. For Nadal that would be in 2015 and 2016 when the best he could do in seven Grand Slam appearances was quarter-finals at the 2015 Australian and French Opens.

Djokovic’s fallow period was five Grand Slams in 2017 and into 2018 when he also failed to get past the quarter-finals.

Photo: Ben Solomon

Fans of the two players and students of the game, short of obtaining inside information, can only parse the words of the two players after their recent disappointments to try to discern exactly what’s going on with them.

Nadal was the more enigmatic is his post-match comments after losing to Fognini in Saturday’s semi-finals. “I am coming from low moments in terms of injuries,” he said after playing his first tournament since Indian Wells in mid-March when knee tendinitis forced him to withdraw before a semi-final against Roger Federer.

What he then added, related to those “low moments,” was unexpected. “And in terms of the mental side it has not been easy to accept all the things that have been going on.”

Following a 6-1, 6-1 victory over No. 22-ranked Roberto Bautista Agut in his opening round, Nadal had admitted, “I can’t pretend to don’t have pain at all because I never thought about that. It’s a long time ago that professional players play normally with pain, because that’s part of the sport at the highest level. So I was able to move well and be confident with the things that I did.”

Obviously, just three days later, that was not the case against Fognini in an erratic performance. Nadal’s remarks suggested that something physical, as well as something mental on or off the court, has been affecting him.

In 2009 when he suffered a shock loss, as four-time defending champion, to Robin Soderling in the round-of-16 at the French Open, he was hampered by knee tendinitis, which then kept him out of action for the ensuing two months. It was also at a time when his parents separated (later getting back together) and that was bothering him. A member of his team was later asked about the Soderling loss and that individual claimed it had more to do with the distraction of the parental breakup than the knee issue.

That suggests it’s always difficult to know what exactly is going on inside a player’s head on and off the court, as well as how it may affect his or her play on the court.

So far in 2019 Nadal’s record is 14-3. But those three losses have been memorable and confidence-shaking – he was beaten 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 by Djokovic in a surprisingly one-sided Aussie Open final, 3-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(6) in Acapulco by one of those whacko inspired  Nick Kyrgios displays and then by an in-form Fognini in Monte Carlo on a day when he was well below par as he attempted to win his 12th title at the event.

This week Nadal (left) returns to the Barcelona Open where he’s also aiming for a 12th triumph. He plays his opening match on Wednesday against No. 63-ranked Leonardo Mayer and has a 5-0 record against the 31-year-old Argentine – having lost just one of the 14 sets they have played.

“The job is to find myself,” he is reported by ATPTour.com to have said Monday at an appearance in Barcelona. “During the last 18 months, I have had too many stops and ups-and-downs non-tennis related.”

Novak Djokovic is on a two-week hiatus from tennis after his loss to Medvedev in the Monte Carlo quarter-finals, and will return for the back-to-back Masters 1000 events in Madrid and Rome in two weeks.

The day before he himself lost, Nadal reacted to the Djokovic upset by Medvedev. “When Novak loses, (it) always seems strange because he’s super solid,” Nadal said. “But everybody is human, no? And every day you play against another opponent that wants to win too. That’s how it works. This is sport.”

That certainly is sport but what also is sport are the expectations people have based on past performance. After his impressive win at the Australian Open in January, Djokovic took almost six weeks off and has not looked at all like his old self in Indian Wells (out to Philipp Kohlschreiber in his second match, Miami (out to Roberto Bautista Agut in his third match) and Monte Carlo (out to Medvedev in his third match.)

In the latter encounter, while Djokovic and Medvedev had 23 and 25 winners respectively, Djokovic’s unforced errors count was a staggering 47 to just 21 for his Russian opponent.

“I’m obviously still lacking that …I think determination to go for the shots maybe in some points,” the reigning champion at Wimbledon and the US and Australian Opens said. “Just too many unforced errors.”

He then sounded a bit blasé about the setback, adding, “French Open is the ultimate goal on clay, and I hope I can… for sure it’s expected in a way for me to peak right at that tournament because that’s what I’m aiming for.”

Djokovic is a modest 5-3 since Melbourne Park but that hasn’t dimmed his confidence going forward. “Look, maybe I’m lacking the consistency with the top results in the last couple of years in the best tournaments,” he said. “But Grand Slams I have been playing my best, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Djokovic’s troubles in 2017 and into 2018 were apparently mainly related to a right elbow issue that was corrected by a surgical procedure following the 2018 Aussie Open. It enabled him to find the form to score a famous victory at Wimbledon five months later.

But there appear to have been times when his focus also has been distracted by outside events. It may not be a good sign that former player Pepe Imaz, who has a tennis academy in Marbella, Spain and is something of a ‘peace and love’ guru, was with Djokovic in Monte Carlo. Imaz was distanced from Djokovic when long-time coach Marian Vajda agreed to come back on board early last year.

“I always have him as a friend,” Djokovic said by way of explaining the presence of Imaz (on right in white in picture above) in Monte Carlo.

Djokovic has been in videos with Imaz when he gets into heavy-duty, spiritual philosophizing. That’s fine and good but maybe it’s just a bit too far removed from mundane matters like the nitty-gritty of hitting backhands and forehands over the net.

Whatever the reason for their current lulls, Nadal and Djokovic both have histories of being able to quickly snap out of it and play back at their extraordinarily high levels.

They may well do so soon – even this week in Barcelona for Nadal – but the fact that there’s currently some doubt about them makes this clay-court season a little spicier than might have been expected.

FELIX FEVER

The popularity of Félix Auger-Aliassime continues to grow. Above he’s practicing with Frances Tiafoe at the Barcelona Open. Auger-Aliassime is seeded – No. 16 – for the first time at an ATP event and will play No. 75-ranked Malek Jaziri (first meeting) in the second round on Wednesday.

Below is a video of him from the ATPTour.com website.

Auger-Aliassime has surpassed Denis Shapovalov in terms of attention getting at the moment – but it shouldn’t be forgotten Shapovalov is the No. 9 seed at this week’s Barcelona Open. He starts out against No. 48 Christian Garin, a 7-5, 6-4 winner over No. 47-ranked Martin Klizan on Wednesday.

If Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime win their first two matches, they would meet in the quarter-finals.

FLAKY FABIO

Everyone knows Fabio Fognini is a very talented tennis player – and now the 2019 Monte Carlo Open champion – as well as bit of a spacey guy, to put it mildly. Here’s a picture from Davis Cup 2013 in Vancouver that captures the whimsy of the now 31-year-old Italian.

Feature Photo: TennisTV.com