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Confidence, Comebacks, Technique & Rafael Nadal

I wrote the following post a while back after Rafa Nadal lost a series of matches on clay. Although much time has passed since, I feel it is still highly relevant. Enjoy!

Recently I sat watching as Rafael Nadal was knocked for the second time this season by talented Italian Fabio Fognini. Its pretty rare to see anyone beat Rafa twice in a season let alone on clay as Fognini did.

But these things happen, even to the King of Clay. However what is increasingly interesting to me is how or when Nadal is going to get through what must be the biggest, (injury free) slump in his career. Now before a Rafa fan points out another “slump” between tournament wins, I will admit to not knowing all of Rafa’s career stats. But I have watched his career closely enough to know what I am saying is true. That this particular slump is not quite like the others.

I got the opportunity to interview Rafa in Abu Dhabi which is the first event of the year. I was shocked that he practically blurted out that his form was not very good and that he was trying hard but not sure when he would be in good form. “Wait,” I thought to myself, “this is the very first event of the year, why is he already so negative before one ball has been hit competitively? Is this Rafa Nadal I’m talking to?”

He has recently admitted to the press that his confidence has gone when he is under pressure. was clearly the case against Fognini in Barcelona. Rafa’s normally consistent and powerful groundies were landing….. well, it was any ones guess! One shot was perfect, the next short and the next flying out. If it wasn’t for his trademark determination he could have easily lost 6–2 6–2 instead of 6–4, 7–6 (8–6). What was obvious was his frustration caused by his inconsistency. A feeling very familiar to anyone who has been through a slump before…. and that means anyone who has ever competed and put his game and heart on the line.

In tennis, a slump can seem to last forever. In football, basketball or any other seasonal sport you would call it a ‘bad year’. We hear that all the time. So and so player had a bad year in 2013 but came back after a good pre season. In tennis however there is no off season. So how does a player get confidence back whilst in the middle of the tour? Let me tell you, it is really really tough.

Lack of confidence or self doubt can be called many things but it’s essentially all the same. I’ve heard it called “the monkey mind”, “ego”, the “alter ego” and even “the devil on my shoulder.” No matter what you call it, we’ve all experienced it, it’s that damn voice inside your head telling you that you’re simply not good enough. Not fit enough. Not smart enough.

Ask ten of the top tour coaches what method they recommend to recapture confidence and they will most likely have ten different answers. And those ten different answers may all be correct. It very much depends on the pupil, what stage they are in and what the underlying issue is.

As a player, I had more comebacks from injury that anyone else, though Tommy Haas must be very close by now! You can analyze and analyze, talk until you’ve run out of breath, but in the end you have to find your own way through, along with your team if you’re lucky enough to have one. During my time as a professional I used everything from psychologists, visualization, meditation, video analysis and lots and lots of plain hard work on the court and in the gym. Much to my mother’s chagrin, at the family home in Melbourne I even bought myself a sensory deprivation float tank to aid physical and mental recovery.

When it comes to Rafa, he believes hard work is a major contributor to recovery. It’s his game to hit hard and do it for hours on end. That’s how he trains and that’s how he builds back his confidence.

But this time I feel the issue may be more technical. And this is making it extra difficult for him to get out of his slump. Rafa’s swing is fast and furious and has more movements up and through the ball than any other superstar player.

Imagine Nadal’s technique as a finely tuned clock. When all is well, every little cog and part is synched and working in harmony resulting in an amazingly accurate time piece. But if a single part is out of whack I’ll affect the whole clock.

That’s what going on with Nadal at the moment. Rafa’s swing has so many moving pieces that when one or more of those pieces is out of whack, his whole technique and rhythm get’s disrupted.

To stick with my admittedly average clock analogy, the magnificent time keeping machine simply can‘t tell time properly any more. To keep everything in this intricate machine running smoothly, the timepiece will need to go back to the workshop and get fine tuned at a deeper technical level.

Will Rafa get fine tuned in time for Roland Garros? He’s managed to do it in the nick of time before and I wouldn’t put it past him to do it again. But with his confidence on clay shaken like never before and lingering technical issues, this is his biggest challenge yet.

One thing we all know, Rafa is never one to shy away from a challenge. It will be fascinating to see how he overcomes this challenge and progresses throughout the year.

Thanks for reading! This article was originally published on my Facebook Page.

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