By DJ Sixsmith
Rafael Nadal is at a crossroads in his tennis career.
The 29-year-old has won 14 Grand Slam titles, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s played over the last six months. The southpaw dropped four of his eight hard court matches this summer, was upset at Wimbledon in the Round of 64 and got embarrassed in three sets by Novak Djokovic in the French Open quarterfinals. The loss to Djokovic ended Nadal’s run of five straight titles at Roland Garros.
Nadal has been falling short in matches that he should be winning, and he knows it.
“The passion is still there, but I’ve been playing with lots of ups and downs this year,” said Nadal, Wednesday night at John McEnroe’s Tennis Academy. “At the same time, I’m losing matches that I should be winning.”
With the US Open beginning in New York on Monday, the King of Clay is trying to recapture the form that once made him great. Nadal’s 13-year career has worn down his body and it was apparent at Randall’s Island. Dark, heavy bags hung below his eyes as he fielded questions from the media. His hair and body were both noticeably thinner since his last trip to New York in 2013, Nadal’s last US Open title.
The 2x US Open champion is the #8 seed in next week’s tournament in Flushing Meadows, but there are many who wonder if Nadal will ever win a grand slam again. Rafael is not one of those people because being doubted is nothing new for him.
“Since I was 16, everyone has been telling me that I’d have a short career because of my style of play,” said Nadal, during Wednesday’s press conference. “I’m 29 and I’m still here. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and I believe the results will return.”
While Nadal’s tilt against Australian Lleyton Hewitt was just a charity match, the 2008 Gold Medal winner wasn’t treating it like one. The Spanish star powered his forehand from white line to white line and rocketed his two handed backhand with gusto. The first three games went to Nadal and it wasn’t even close. Hewitt looked like an amateur player as opposed to a 2x Grand Slam champ.
In the end, Nadal made the match close for the fans, with an 8-7 one set victory over Hewitt. It easily could’ve been 8-0. The results returned for Rafa and he looked like himself again under the bright lights. His movements were graceful and his strokes were smooth. This Rafael Nadal was the player ready to make a deep run at the US Open, not the one taking early flights back home.
Seeing Nadal smile on a tennis court was a sight for sore eyes. For the first time in months, he played loose and free. John McEnroe, who served as the umpire for the charity match, had a front row seat to the action. Although McEnroe didn’t win a grand slam after the age of 25, the 7x champion believes the King of Clay is poised for a big return to the top.
“I am very hopeful that Rafael will be out there playing at a high level for the next three or four years. The sport of tennis needs him,” said McEnroe. “If he wins the US Open, I will be the first to tell you his road back to the top started at Randall’s Island.”
Throughout the night, McEnroe thanked Nadal for volunteering his time to the Johnny Mac Tennis Project. However, it was actually McEnroe who did Nadal the favor. Rafa regained more than just his confidence on the hard court in New York. Nadal’s performance last night reminded him what it’s like to win the matches you are supposed to win and that’s why he’s ready for long run in next week’s US Open.