Should there be concern about Rafa Nadal?

The Australian Open is in full swing and as is the case with every tennis tournaments, there have already been upsets in the first round. On the women’s side, the number 32, 31, 29, 25, 22, 16, 8 and 2 seeds have all gone down. Most significant are the losses of Simona Halep, the #2 seed behind Serena Williams, Serena’s sister Venus, who came in as the 8 seed and the local favorite of my current home, Caroline Wozniacki.

The men’s draw is no stranger to upsets either. I previously mentioned the loss of the #17 seed Benoit Paire to Noah Rubin but the number 20, 11 and 5 seeds have also lost. But it’s that 5 seed that it’s time to talk about.

Rafael Nadal lost in the first round of a major for just the second time in his career. The first came at Wimbledon in 2013 when he lost to Steve Darcis. In this case the loss is a bit more respectable. Nadal fell to fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, who has had a lengthy and successful career, in 5 sets. But it’s notable because of how Nadal’s career has gone in recent years. If this had happened a few years ago, it would have been seen as a simple blip, such as when he lost to Robin Soderling in the French Open, a tournament he has dominated in his career.

But if you combine this loss with his recent performance, it reveals something more alarming: that Rafael Nadal may have begun the downward spiral towards retirement. Nadal has won 14 majors and was, at one point, the best player in the world. But from there he began having problems with his knees, which kept him off the court and caused his ranking to drop. He has since been surpassed by the other members of the men’s tennis Big Four-Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic- as well as Stan Wawrinka.

Despite the injuries, Nadal had managed to maintain enough of his championship form to remain competitive. At least until 2015. 2015 was the first season that Nadal did not make a single major final for the first time in 10 years. Nada himself had spoken about a loss of confidence given last year’s performance, though he had said that he had like his performances from the early tournaments of 2016.

This loss now makes 5 consecutive majors without even a semi-finals appearance from Nadal (and 6 of the last 7), with his last win coming at the French Open in 2014. 2015 also marked the first time Nadal competed in all 4 Majors since 2011.

I’m not saying Nadal will never win a significant tournament again. The next Major is the French Open, which he has dominated for his entire career. But not everyone has the longevity of Federer and it may be time to recognize that Nadal may not be able to compete with the best of the best for much longer outside of his magnificence on clay.

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