After winning his 20th Major at Roland Garros last year, Rafael Nadal imagined that 2021 would be a good year to overtake eternal rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the all-time Grand Slam rankings. This season proved to be quite disappointing for the Spanish champion, limited by a series of physical problems.
A back injury prevented him from appearing in the best conditions at the Australian Open, where he was beaten by Stefanos Tsitsipas. The former world number 1 returned to his beloved clay court, with Roland Garros as the main target in the background.
His crushed brick campaign has gone on file with a couple of trophies (Barcelona and Rome), but with the feeling of no longer having the invincible player of yesteryear in front of him. This impression was then confirmed in Paris, the tournament that more than any other forged its legend.
Handicapped by foot pain, the 35-year-old Majorcan surrendered to Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Rafa tried a timid return to Washington in the summer, but immediately realized he had to raise the white flag. Speaking in the latest edition of the 'Tres Iguales' podcast, his uncle Toni took stock of the situation.
Uncle Toni on Rafael Nadal
"It hurt Novak Djokovic to finally arrive on the circuit when there was already a very strong rivalry between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal," Toni said. "Federer and Nadal, they were two opposing styles, two different trajectories, and that made the fans very excited.
It was therefore difficult to find a place at that time." Speaking of Rafael Nadal's head-to-head matchup against Novak Djokovic, Toni explained how the Serb has always been trickier to strategize against than Federer. "With Roger everything was always easier because since 2006 we focused on starting almost all the points playing a high and strong ball to his backhand," Toni said.
"Djokovic has always been much more complex, we did not know how to read his game." Uncle Toni also addressed how the game has changed since the time Rafael Nadal came onto the tour. "This sport has become a game of speed, not strategy," Toni said.
"In a short time, everything has accelerated a lot. In the first years of Rafa's career, you found players who allowed to play, who fought for every ball and thought. Now the way to seek victory is to hit hard before the opponent.
I feel that now everything is well studied, but in the end what it all consists of is playing well," Toni said.