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It has been a tale of two seasons for Rafael Nadal. For the first five months, fans and pundits alike were wondering if Rafa might take over the No. 1 ranking and, ultimately, end his career with more Grand Slam titles than Roger Federer. After the past few months, fans and pundits are left wondering what they were thinking. Forget about breaking records, Nadal needs to find his game, which has gone MIA.
From January to May, Nadal won five titles -- the Australian Open, Indian Wells, Monte Carlo, Barcelona and the Italian Open -- and reached the finals of two other events. He seemed unstoppable and indefatigable, the Spanish Bull who had everyone, including Federer, on the ropes. But after the Italian Open in May, Nadal failed to win a tournament and reached only one final, in Shanghai, where he lost to Nikolay Davydenko.
The first half of Nadal's season was so strong that he clinched a spot in the Barclay's World Tour Final on May 19. The second half was so dismal that he failed to win a match in London against the world's eight best players.
In fact, if you had to pinpoint one area that Nadal's game has suffered most, it's against the elite players. Rafa is 14-11 versus the top 10 in 2009, but most of those wins came in the early part of the season. Since beating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Madrid Masters in May, Nadal is an abysmal 1-9 against top-10 opponents.
Obviously, injuries have played a role in Nadal's reversal of fortune. Tendinitis in both knees forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon, and at the U.S. Open he had an abdominal strain. During his match against Djokovic at the World Tour Finals, Nadal received medical assistance for his lower back, though afterward he made no excuses and graciously credited Djokovic for his outstanding play.
All of these nagging injuries will lead some observers to start hammering away at the notion, first popularized when Nadal won his first French Open, that Rafa's body is breaking down, that the end is nigh. Of course, every time this sentiment reaches a fever pitch, Nadal ends up proving his detractors wrong by winning a big title or notching a significant win.
That's not to say Nadal's dip in form isn't troubling. In London, he was outmuscled and even outhustled by his opponents. No one seemed intimidated. His shots landed short all too often, and his service returns were, at best, rally shots to start the point. With his confidence at a low point, Nadal will have to regroup during the offseason -- all three weeks of it -- before preparations begin for the Australian Open.
Before he can take a deep breath, however, Nadal has to play the Davis Cup final this weekend. It might be a blessing in disguise. The tie is on his favorite surface (clay) in front of his home fans, which could give him a much-needed mental boost. And before you buy into the theory that Nadal's body is toast and no longer capable of standing up to the rigors of the tour, remember that he's still only 23 years old, with a peerless drive to succeed and a record of proving his critics wrong.
It might take some time for him to regain his form. But write off Rafa? Do it at your own risk.