ATP World Tour Finals 2011: ‘Tired’ Nadal looks towards 2012

Rafael Nadal reflects on his year after he was beaten 7-6 (7-2) 4-6 6-3 by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the ATP World Tour Finals

rafael nadal
Nadal lost to Tsonga in three sets on Thursday night Photo: Marianne Bevis

rafael nadal

Seven times he has qualified for the year-end championships””every year since 2005″”and he has now played in five of them, but still the biggest title missing from the bulging trophy room of Rafael Nadal remains elusive.

The Spaniard went into his last Round Robin match holding a win over Mardy Fish and a loss to Roger Federer. His final opponent, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, was in the same position, which added extra drama to the two-and-three-quarter hour match that unfolded in front of a capacity 17,500 crowd at the O2 Arena.

The reward for the winner was a place in the semi-finals, the reward for the loser was an ignominious exit from London.

Nadal’s loss to Federer may not have been a surprise: He lost to his long-term rival in the finals last year and in the semi-finals on two previous occasions.

But the indoor hard courts spell trouble for Nadal even without Federer: Nadal has just one indoor title to his name and that came back in 2005 when Madrid was played indoors.

They spell even more trouble when the other pool members are big serve-and-volley fans””just as Fish and Tsonga are.

The American, despite coming to London with injury problems, took Nadal to a third set tie-breaker, while the charismatic Frenchman came to London with two indoor titles in Metz and Vienna as well as a final finish in the Paris Masters. Meanwhile, Nadal pulled out Paris with the primary aim of recovering his weary body for the World Tour Finals.

Yet in this qualifying match, Nadal failed to ignite with the passion so inherent in the Spaniard’s style of play until the end of the second set.

With the first set already lost in a tie-break, he survived deuce on his serve in the ninth game, and suddenly found his fire. Level with Tsonga at 67 points apiece, Nadal attacked everything that the Frenchman threw at him and was rewarded on the fourth break point.

The familiar strut, fist pump and glare at his box accompanied his winning of the set, 6-4, yet it took only three games in the third set for the tables to turn, and it was quickly Tsonga who looked the more powerful, more passionate man of the two.

The Frenchman broke, and then broke again in the seventh game, for a 5-2 lead. And although nerves gripped the arm of Tsonga when he served for the set, he quickly regained his concentration to break Nadal again. That sealed the victory, 6-3, and took Tsonga into the semi-finals of what is rapidly becoming the “Jo-Wilfried show.”

He loves London and London loves him””and he knows it. Thirty-six times he came to the net and 27 times he won the point there because, as he said afterwards: “I come to the net””I know you like that here!”

It was, however, the man who disappeared with bowed head into the bowels of this vast arena who commanded the attention after the match was done.

In what is becoming a persistent thread that began to show itself as he fell time after time to his new nemesis, Novak Djokovic””in the finals of four Masters and two Grand Slams””Nadal cut a subdued, thoughtful and introspective figure as he tried to convey his feelings about this latest loss and his season as a whole.

It was particularly interesting that, after showing such short-lived passion in the middle of the match, he chose to address why his form had dropped since losing the US Open with that very feature.

“Because probably I had a little less passion for the game, probably because I was a little bit more tired than usual.”

He went on to talk at length, with little prompting and little interruption from the assembled press, about a year that, by any standards, has been a successful one: He took titles at the French Open, the Monte Carlo Masters and in Barcelona, as well as reaching the finals of those four Masters and two Grand Slams.

“This was a tough year for me, no? I think I was positive one moment but at the same time there were hard moments. I didn’t have big expectations for this tournament””I know how I arrived””but always you dream that the situation can change.

“The only way is to accept, and I know the only one way to change the situation is to work more, think more about tennis, do everything in the right shape, do everything good inside the court, everything good outside the court. And that’s what I’m going to try to do for the next month and for the 12 months of 2012.

“If another player is better than me, accept, congratulate the opponent. What I have to do is try to arrive at my best, to be calm with myself. That’s what I feel I didn’t do today and I need to for next year.”

Of course, watching a new rival take on your own mantle, including the No1 ranking, is a bitter pill to swallow, especially after a 2010 season that was almost as dominant as Djokovic’s 2011. Nadal came into this year as top dog with three Grand Slams, three Masters and a final finish at the WTFs.

And while his year since New York has wound down””and a handful of different men such as Ivan Dodig in Montreal, Fish in Cincinnati and Florian Mayer in Shanghai subsequently scored wins over Nadal””he nevertheless shone in his two Davis Cup matches and reached the final in Tokyo. And, lest he forget, Djokovic has had a similar falling off since New York.

There was time, then, for the more familiar Nadal to raise his head before leaving London.

“‘Frustration’ is not the right word for me. I am happy. I am here. I qualified like No2 in the world for the WTFs. I am here playing in a fantastic stadium. I never dreamed that if you told me 15 years before.

“In your career you have moments here [gestering high with his hand] and moments here [gestering low]. And today is not my best moment”¦[but] experience tells me that to change small things does, at the end of the day, change a lot of things.

“That’s what I have to do: work hard every day, morning, afternoon”¦My motivation I hope is the same. I will do it. If [that’s] not enough, it’s not enough. But I will be satisfied with myself.”

He forced a wry smile, made a few shrugs of the shoulder, and wished us farewell rather sooner than he had hoped. And then he called out to our backs. “See you next year.”

Yes indeed.

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