Nadal was up to 11 Grand Slam titles, after all, and he was unstoppable on his choice surface.
He had taken down Novak Djokovic, whose 2011 was so good in breadth and depth that any victory over him would make the winner a serious figure in his own right.
But now it is August, and the talk instead is that Nadal will miss more tennis. He is out of the U.S. Open after already withdrawing from the Olympics and falling flat in Wimbledon.
Just months after Nadal and Djokovic seemed to have a stranglehold on the new era of tennis, with Roger Federer fading in the distance and Andy Murray perpetually falling short, the equation has changed again. Nadal is no longer great just for beating Federer early in his career and Djokovic late. Murray is a serious contender, especially in finally breaking through at the Olympics. And Federer could be revving for 20 slams and his best year ever in tennis, with the now unquestionably greatest of all time piecing together tennis that continues to amaze.
The biggest conclusion from Nadal missing the U.S. Open, of course, is that his style of play has doomed him this time around. That’s what all the talk will be about as he misses this fortnight — that the pummeling his legs take as he runs opponents to death, especially on the hard courts, means he’s not destined for greatness on anything but clay. Rather than his Roland Garros victories showing he can really master one area on top of a strong all-around game, those Grand Slams are now showing that Nadal is indeed a one-trick pony, with his game incomplete since he cannot turn similar success — or mere appearances — on other surfaces.
But Nadal faces a bigger problem by missing time with injury than just what the critics will say about his game. Yes, his knee tendonitis is showing his hard-court abilities are nothing next to his clay mastery, and yes, he’s found the worst time to slump as his rivals continue upward, knocking out the momentum he gained from that pivotal June day.
But more importantly, Nadal sitting out is killing him mathematically. Take a look through Nadal’s track record, and see how many matches he’s played, both on the regular circuit and in slam chances. His inability to sustain a full season of tennis at an optimal level means he only gets a certain number of chances to dominate. Without them, he doesn’t have much of an opportunity to make his name permanently, much less win some matches.
For every point Nadal gains by outrunning someone or outlasting their volley, he loses entire tournaments to injury from that play. For every advantage he takes by styling his game in a way that demolishes foes while ruining his knees, he creates a disadvantage at making a lasting legend. For every tournament he misses with some late-season leg hurting, he passes up chances to make himself the greatest ever.
Nadal’s success is linked to his style of play, and he certainly has the portfolio to back up his choices. His clay record is untouchable, and he has a nice collection of Grand Slams and other tournament wins. But, at 26, Nadal still has time to revamp his game if he chooses to. He has enough other tricks in his bag that, if need be, he could take time and change his approach, finding ways to win that wouldn’t relegate him to half a season every year he plays.
His window is short — if Nadal is to change anything, now has to be the time. In tennis years, he’s fast approaching the time where his body will go from tiring to flat-out quitting soon. If he’s going to pull the old Tiger Woods routine and redo his swing, he has to do it now.
Nadal has shown he can not only run with the greatest but also beat them. His main argument for legend status is that he regularly defeats two men who will go down as the best in this era (if not all time, for Federer). But he could do one better by sustaining a full season of success and at least making an appearance in the twilight of the tennis season.
Nadal’s grating style has given him his game, but he’s shown the ability to adapt and grow on the way to wins before. And, for as much success he’s had in his old ways, a new adjustment could put him unquestionably at another level — a level he can’t reach if he isn’t logging time at the court.
As another untimely injury bumps Nadal from contention this summer, maybe it’s time he lets the pain shake his game up.