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Rafael Nadal’s Need for Changes




Prior to 2015, there were three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Rafael Nadal winning on clay. Death and taxes unfortunately still remain certainties but the latter is no longer a given.

Evidence of this was on full display when Rafael Nadal kicked off his clay court season last week in Bueno Aires, Argentina. Much to the surprise of tennis fans, although it’s slowly not becoming surprising, Nadal left the tournament empty handed. He lost in the semifinals to rising star Dominic Thiem. The match was a closely contested three setter, in which Nadal held a match point. However, Nadal played a poor final set tiebreak, allowing the young Austrian Thiem to walk away with a 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 victory.

In past seasons when Nadal lost on clay, tennis fans would be shocked but consider it a flash in the pan. With Nadal’s recent struggles, the lose will spark the debate of his demise and raise the question of what changes will he make to get back to his winning ways.

One of those changes that lingers for Nadal is replacing his coach, who is also his uncle, Toni Nadal. Uncle Toni, as he is known in the tennis world, has been coaching Nadal since he was four years old. He has led his nephew, simply known as Rafa, to 14 grand slams and one Olympic gold medal. Nadal is one of seven men to win a career grand slam and only he and Andre Agassi can say they are golden slam winners. Nadal has the distinguishing record of owning the most ATP 1000 Masters titles.

Yet even with all of these accolade fans will ask what Janet Jackson asked on her 1986 Control album, what have you done for me lately?

In 2015 there wasn’t much Rafa did. Even more surprisingly there wasn’t much he did on clay.

Nadal earned the title “King of Clay” because of his utter dominance on the surface. He has 47 titles on clay, which includes nine French Opens. His current overall record on clay is 346-31. So whenever Rafa doesn’t dominant the clay season and win big titles on clay (Madrid, Rome, French Open) it is an indication of his struggles. Add to the fact that Rafa lost most of his matches to players he once dominated, the level of concerned is heightened.

Nadal did manage to win three titles in 2015 (two small titles on clay and one small title on grass) but those titles pale in comparison to what he has won in the past. Nadal did begin to look like himself towards the end of the season when he was able to make two finals and a semi at the Word Tour Finals, beating top players. Also despite his struggle he ended the year ranked number five, a ranking most players on the tour would dream of having. However, this is Rafael Nadal and for his standards and definitely the standards of the tennis community his year was not a success.

So the question that resurfaces again, what is Nadal doing to change his year-long struggles? Rafa went on record by stating that the problem was him and not his team and that he would have to fix it. As aforementioned the ‘old’ Nadal did appear towards the end of the year but as was the problem last year he wasn’t able to gain momentum and by both losing his first round at the Australian Open and being unable to walk away with the title, on his most successful surface, in Argentina, shows that more work needs to be done.

Making the coaching change is a logical choice given that when something doesn’t work on a team the coach is the first to blame and go.  But being Rafa’s coach is also his uncle, there is a reluctance to remove him. Rafa could keep his uncle and just add another coach or consultant (a popular title used today) to his team. All of Nadal’s main rivals have done this.

Nadal’s contemporaries: Djokovic, Federer and Murray all have had considerable success after making coaching changes in their camp so it remains a mystery why Rafa is so hesitant to do the same. Does Rafa really believe his “lack of confidence” is the only thing holding him back from winning? Is Rafa willing to let his loyalty to his uncle prevent him from returning to the winner’s circle? More importantly can Rafa make the necessary adjustments to get back his game? As the season progresses some of these questions will surely be answered.

Nadal is no stranger to comebacks. He has faced many injuries and he was always able to comeback stronger and better. That is until 2015. Tennis has changed and there are a lot more players hungry to be the next Nadal or the next Djokovic.  If Rafa has any intention of holding off the young guns while also battling his rivals he has got to make some changes. Whether these changes are to his team, his game or his attitude remains a debate.

The tennis world will be watching and waiting to see what Rafa does and tennis fans can only hope that Rafa finds a way to turn it around and go back to biting trophies on a Sunday afternoon.

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Ricardo is the lead Tennis Analyst here at
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