Yet, as Melzer showed when hitting 37 clean winners past one of the all-time great retrievers on Thursday night, Nadal is not fine. He is knackered. And so the obituary writers descended on him. ESPN called it a "Shanghai Shocker". "All good things come to an end," CNN announced after his fourth defeat in 37 matches dating back to June. Nadal has won 66 of 74 all year. In his career, the 24-year-old Mallorcan has won 467 and lost 100.
Nadal does not make excuses for losing. Still, in a reasoned plea to the ATP to move some of the minor events towards the end of the year, tournaments the leading players do not need for their ATP points, he used the word "tired" six times. Friends say Nadal is struggling to conserve energy for the last big heave of the season, next month's World Tour Finals in London. As one confidant put it: "He is exhausted. He just wants to get to the end of the season then take a rest."
With Tiger Woods yet to regain his winning form, only Usain Bolt, surely, challenges him as the biggest individual star in sports that can be gauged by their international spread. An argument might be made for Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino boxing wizard, but not with any conviction. No footballer stands out like Nadal does, no cricketer, basketball player, swimmer, jumper, rider, driver or hitter. Nadal is more dominant in tennis than anyone in, for instance, golf, where Martin Kaymer will overtake Tiger Woods as the world No1 if he finishes first or second in this month's Andalucia Masters – without persuading anyone he is a better golfer.
So, how much better than everyone else in tennis is Nadal, and how long will his reign last? A lot, and, it is clear, only for as long as his body holds out.
On clay he has been out of sight for several years; on grass he is a betting favourite at every Wimbledon; on the various versions of hard court the case has been made since his breakthrough at Flushing Meadows this year that he is now a consistent threat on the surface, and not just to Roger Federer, whose domain it has been since 2004.
The reason? Quite apart from his innate genius, Nadal has worked hard to overhaul his game. He has put considerably more muscle in his serve and now he also has a backhand serviceable enough under pressure to allow him to hold court position, rather than running around the serve to employ his lethal forehand. That has given him several yards more safe territory along the baseline, enabling him to dictate play earlier in rallies. That luxury alone is a boon for his tendinitis, the one enemy that has threatened his career more seriously than any opponent.
It is hard It is hard to see who can spike Nadal's rise when he is healthy. Federer says he still has the hunger and he, too, has adapted his game to plug gaps. However, the great Swiss, whom millions of admirers will always regard as the best of all time, will never be No1 again, according to John McEnroe, and it is hard to disagree. Federer is 29, yet, despite having no history of serious injury, complains frequently of minor back trouble, especially in defeat, over the past year. If the Federer machine is winding down, domestic contentment may quickly appeal as an alternative to the struggle with Nadal as he strives to add to his record 16 majors.
Novak Djokovic, at 23 and ranked second in the world, is seen by many as the king in waiting. Unarguably, he has the talent. But the temperament to win consistently at the highest level is not yet apparent, a comment that also applies to the world No4, Andy Murray, who is a year older.
Outside the top four, men's tennis is peopled by excellent contenders, most of them in their mid-20s, capable of occasional upsets, but not one of them – Melzer included – would you back to beat Nadal if he wakes up fit and in the mood to win.
Nadal has 12,390 ATP points – more than 5,000 ahead of Djokovic and nearly 6,000 clear of Federer, a stunning lead. Who among the others competing for a place in the elite eight at the O2 Arena – Robin Soderling, Davydenko, Tomas Berdych and Mikhail Youzhny – would any sane gambler back to beat Nadal in a major?
As with Federer until a couple of years ago, defeat invariably arrives for Nadal only when his own game dips. It happened last week. It will happen again. But there can be little doubt we are in the Nadal era, one that will last as long as his fragile knees and remarkable spirit sustain him.
Courtesy: The Guardian