Rafael Nadal is 66-13 this season with three titles, including the French Open. (Alexander F. Yuan/AP)
It's been a rough week for Rafael Nadal. On Sunday, with a chance to capture his fourth title in 2011, Nadal was thrashed by a zoning Andy Murray in Tokyo, winning a mere four points in dropping the third set 6-0. Then he suffered a more surprising loss Thursday, dismissed by Florian Mayer 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the third round of the Shanghai Masters. Nadal was tentative throughout, but the tricky German played the match of his career to pull off the upset.
Is it unfair to Nadal that these are matches we expect him to figure out and win on a regular basis? Maybe it is. After all, Thursday's match felt a lot like his loss to Ivan Dodig in Montreal, his loss to Mardy Fish in Cincinnati, heck, even his loss to Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open. It's just been a while since we've seen opponents of all shapes and sizes feel confident that they can push Nadal around the court and then actually be able to execute when it matters.
So, yes, this seems to be happening more often than usual for Rafa this year. That said, is the current landscape one in which early-round losses by the ATP's great champions are greeted with nothing more than a shrug? I don't think so.
Nadal has won a Grand Slam and two other titles, reached 10 finals and notched a Tour-leading 66 victories this season. So how much does it say about what Nadal expects from himself and how much we have come to expect from him that even with those stats this has been subpar year for the Spaniard?
"I played worse than last year," Nadal said when asked to put his year into context after his second-round win over Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Shanghai. "I was very regular, probably even more regular than last year. I believe Rafa 2010 had something more special than Rafa 2011, especially in tough situations. That's the truth. Win or lose depends on very, very, very small things. And probably these very, very small things I did a little bit better in 2010 than 2011."
While Murray acknowledged that Djokovic has elevated the already absurdly high bar at which the men's game is being played, Nadal has been reluctant to credit Djokovic's improved performance as the sole reason for his unparalleled success.
"Djokovic this year already won a lot of tournaments," Nadal said. "[I] don't believe that he changed his game unbelievably. He did a few small things better than a few years ago and that's why [he's had] big success this year. That's what I'm going to try. But I am not agreeing with what Andy said. I think the level, no, wasn't better than 2010 or 2009. I think it was similar. For my part and Roger's [Federer] part, a little bit worse for the moment."
It's an interesting stance from Nadal to throw himself under the bus when speaking about Djokovic. One wonders if it would take a psychological load off Nadal if he would just concede the year to the Serb, tip his hat, mutter "too good" and carry on, knowing that Djokovic will surely have to come back to earth at some point.
But that's not the mentality of a champion, and Nadal's success for much of his career (particularly in his relentless pursuit of Federer) has been predicated on his self-belief, honesty and commitment. He knows what he's capable of, acknowledges when he falls short of that and therefore works harder than ever to close the gap. It's that simple motivational loop that has worked well for Nadal over the years and there's no reason to think it will not help him solve the Djokovic riddle (and the smaller puzzles in the form of the Dodigs and Mayers of the world).
To get there, he'll need to give his mind a much-needed break.
"Today is the best day to go to play golf tomorrow morning, to rest a little bit," Nadal said after Thursday's loss. "The season has been long for me. Very positive season, but at the same time tough season for me. These kind of losses affect you. It's normal." With Nadal's loss, Djokovic officially clinches the year-end No. 1 ranking, becoming the 16th man to do so. As for Nadal, he'll take some time off before soldiering on to Paris for next month's BNP Paribas Masters, the World Tour Finals in London and the Davis Cup final in Seville.