It is a simple question, but let’s get things straight. Nadal had a pretty good 2011, by almost anyone’s standards. The Spaniard won the French Open for the millionth time (OK, sixth) and won the Davis Cup yet again. He picked up two other titles, reached two other grand slam finals and five other ATP Tour finals. It was hardly a year of crisis.
Roger Federer made just one grand slam final but because he ended 2011 strongly with victory in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, he goes into the new year with renewed belief. But Nadal made three grand slam finals to Federer’s one and more finals overall. And yet the fact that it was the all-swinging, all-conquering Djokovic who beat him at Wimbledon, at the US Open and in four other finals, including two on his beloved clay, is what lingers as 2012 begins. Having never beaten Nadal in a final going into 2011, the Serbian somehow managed it six times in a row, including in New York when Nadal threw absolutely everything at him. So what does Nadal have to do to reverse the trend? The more I think about it, the more I come to the same conclusion. He has to ignore him.
As his English has improved with each year on tour, we have come to realise just how brutally honest the 25-year-old can be about his game and his state of mind. Most tennis players delude themselves, terrified what might happen mentally if they let the world in on their true thoughts. Not Nadal. Instead, we hear that he “lacked a little bit of passion for the game,” and that even the strength in his legs was missing at times. “But the most important thing that is missing is the mental strength, which makes all the rest possible,” he said. It is easy to say that Nadal should play more up inside the baseline or that he should crank his serve up to the 130mph that we saw at the US Open in 2010. But there is more to it than that.
Of all the things he said last year, perhaps the most important came in a conversation during the season-ending Finals in London. “This will be a year for bettering myself internally,” he told German news agency dpa. “Not for beating Djokovic or anything like that. It is a question of going beyond myself, personally. All the rest is secondary. The problem is internal. It is about personally wanting to take a step further, again.”
Nadal has won 10 grand slam titles by being the strongest player, mentally, in the world. He lost some of that in 2011 but if his body is right, there is no reason he cannot re-establish that aura in 2012. One thing is for sure. He won’t be trying out a sports psychologist. “I have never used one and I’m not planning to use one,” he said. “I obviously respect the work of psychologists, but not for playing tennis.”
Tennis is all about match-ups. The great players go through ups and downs in their rivalries. Djokovic had an incredible 2011, often at Nadal’s expense. But if Nadal can concentrate on himself, then things can change quickly. For Djokovic, his difficulty will be coping mentally if (as seems highly probable) he is unable to repeat his heroics of 2011 for a sustained period. It is an enormous task and if any cracks appear, Nadal (and Federer and perhaps Andy Murray) will be there.
It seems a bit ridiculous to single out a two-time grand slam winner as a dark horse for the first part of 2012 but that’s not going to stop me – look out for a big push from Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The Russian raised herself out of her slumber to end 2011 ranked just inside the top 20 and I’d be surprised if she is not pushing for a return to the top 10 come the summer. At 26 she still has time on her side and as a former US Open and French Open champion, she knows she is capable of great things. With former coach Olga Morozova back with her – in theory through to the Olympics in London – she has solidity and consistency once more and no one will take her lightly.