Of course, now we can all see that the turnaround was inevitable. Empowered physically and mentally by a new diet, a Davis Cup title and a better serve, the streamlined Novak no longer had a soft spot -- i.e., Roger Federer's backhand, Andy Murray's brain -- to brutalize. As a result, Nadal suddenly understood what it felt like to play against himself. And he didn't like it.
This harsh reality has been harder for Nadal to accept than one would have expected. He's come right out and said that figuring out how to turn the tables on Djokovic is such a big job that it can't possibly happen before next season. Federer, with his bird's eye perspective on the game, recently hit on why that is: Rafa's never been dominated before. "I don't think it's rattling him badly," he said, diplomatic as ever, of Djokovic's five straight wins over Nadal. "But it should have some effect on him, because he doesn't have losing streaks against many players, or hasn't had, because he was such a good teenager, really."
That's a key point. Nadal was so good at such a young age that he skipped over an important step in development. The natural order of things is for a player, no matter how talented, to get beaten like an old rug early in his ATP career. Back in his pony-tail days, Federer regularly got pounded by Andre Agassi and even Lleyton Hewitt, before his 2003 breakthrough. But the same didn't happen to Nadal. He was a true prodigy, a phenomenon. In addition to his freakish teenage physique and skills, injuries kept him off the circuit early on. So when he made his very first appearance at Roland Garros, he won the thing. He even won his first-ever match against Federer, then the new number-one player in the world. And it was on a hard court.
This led to the Rafa Mythos, which Nadal bought into with equal or greater fervor than even his opponents. "I think I have the capacity to accept difficulties and overcome them that is superior to many of my rivals," he says in his new book.
That certainly has been true. Now it's more true of Djokovic than it is of Nadal.
The Spaniard's tail-between-the-legs response to Djokovic's rise has been a bit of a shock. Rafa has never been one to swagger -- that's always been an important aspect of his appeal. He's a pleasant, genuine guy. The idealized Nice Young Man. He brings boyish enthusiasm, not marking-my-territory arrogance, to the court. But there is a flip side to that humility: Abject acceptance of the Way of Things, whatever it might be. There will be no Connorsesque, "I'll chase that S.O.B. to the ends of the earth" bluster from him. He's number two again? OK, Rafa doesn't like it, but he accepts it.
To change this new, unpleasant reality, he needs to go away for a while, soak in the hot tub, gather his brain trust -- and work, work, work.
At least he thinks he does. He actually doesn't. And maybe Soreshouldergatewill convince him that the time to strike isn't 2012 but right now, in New York. Djokovic retired in the Cincy final against Murray, kicking up speculation that he's seriously hurt, that he's burned out. That he won't be ready for the U.S. Open next week. He'll be fit and ready, make no mistake. But the Djoker is amental block for Nadal, not a physical one. Rafa just needs to believe the Serbian will be 99% instead of 100%.
Yes, Djokovic can beat anyone at any time. That includes Federer and Nadal and the ghosts of Budge and Laver. He's that good. But the same is still true of Rafa. He's the defending U.S. Open champion, let's remember. And it's not like Djokovic has been blowing Nadal off the court this season. Their matches have been close, and Rafa just needs that little extra oomph to get over the hump. I never thought I'd be saying this, but he just needs to believe in himself.