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There is nothing like a good, old-fashioned eyeball test. But what happens when the eyeballs don’t help us draw any concrete conclusions? All season we’ve been trying to figure out what exactly is ailing Rafael Nadal on a tennis court, but it has not proven to be an easy task. On some days the forehand lands short and opponents take advantage. But why is the forehand short? And against which type of attack? Is Nadal struggling while stretched out to the forehand side? Has he lost a step?

More: Nadal Downs Cuevas to Reach Hamburg's Last Four

For every shot we see on TV or live in person, there are myriad possibilities, multiple causes and effects that bring about success or failure in Nadal’s game. How can we accurately say which they are?

This week we’ve been studying his every move in Hamburg. And, truth be told, it’s difficult to tell if there really is anything technical or physical that is hampering Nadal. On some points he dazzles, ripping ferocious forehands that bend and buzz. Yet, on others, he appears lost, as if he’s not even comfortable holding the racquet in his hands. It’s hard to tell from one point to the next which Nadal is going to step up and hit the ball.

During Friday’s straight-sets victory over Pablo Cuevas, Nadal looked strong for most of the match. But still there was weirdness. At one point he lost his balance for no reason and fell to the clay mid-point. It struck me as one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen Nadal do. How does that happen to a player so skilled at moving on the clay?

Finally, when Nadal finished off his 6-3, 6-2 victory over Cuevas, I came to the conclusion that my eyeballs don’t know jack. So I turned to the stats, hoping that there’d be some clues. Here is what I found:

Nadal has not been lying when he has spoken about lacking confidence in the big moments. One need only look at his tiebreaker stats to figure that out. Nadal has performed at a 62 percent clip in tiebreakers in his career (194-117), and yet in the last two years combined he has only won 50 percent (19-19).

Slightly satisfied, but not completely, I dug further.

Next I looked at break points won. Normally I don’t ever look at this stat because it doesn’t always reflect how well a player performs under pressure. Sometimes a player can break on his third or fifth or seventh break point of a game against someone like Novak Djokovic. The Stats say 1 for 3 or 1 for 7 but really the result has been clutch. That said, I wanted to see if there was anything at all I could find that would indicate that Rafa’s struggles can at least partially be attributed to psychological issues. There seemed to be:

In 2015, Nadal is winning just 41.3 percent of break points (prior to this week), which leaves him at a rank of 23 out of the tour’s top 50 players. In 2013, Nadal was ranked 2nd in this category (46.8 percent of break points converted), and in 2014 he was ranked 1st on the tour at 48.4 percent of break points converted.


Novak Djokovic
To go from Top 2 to 23rd, that’s something.

I noticed the same trend in saving break points.

Nadal has saved 60.8 percent of break points faced this season (again, prior to this week), which leaves him ranked 24th out of the tour’s Top 50 players. In 2013 he saved 69.4 percent of break points (4th among the tour’s Top 50) and in 2014 he saved 66.3 percent (10th). Again, another significant drop-off.

It’s so difficult to tell what is actually happening with Nadal these days. Maybe his serve and return just aren’t what they used to be, so he’s losing these crucial points at times when his opponents really need to exploit his new weaknesses? Or, maybe he’s so badly lacking confidence that he’s shanking balls or leaving them tantalizingly short because he can’t get his mind clear enough to let his natural instincts take over?

As I watched Nadal struggle to hold serve against Jiri Vesely in the second set on Thursday, I couldn’t help but think that he may be going through his own unique case of the yips. In other words, his mind is actively sabotaging his best intentions in the very moments that he needs it to shut down and let his muscle memory go to work. The season is seven months old, and Nadal has been injury-free for a while now. He’s a player that thrives on repetition and he’s been getting plenty of it—both on the practice court and in matches—but something still isn’t clicking.

The eyeball test makes that clear. So do *some* of the stats. But the big picture is still a mystery when it comes to Nadal. Less than two years ago he was absolutely demolishing everything and anything that stood in his way on his tennis court.

Now not only are ATP journeymen casting shadows over Nadal’s legacy, he seems to be spooked by the inner workings of his own mind. Perhaps a battle with Roger Federer could be the thing that shakes him out of his doldrums and reminds the great vanquisher of who he is. We all know what an important role Federer played in Nadal’s rise. First Nadal sought to match the Swiss, then he sought to dominate him. He did both, and created his own personal tennis revolution in the process.

Has Nadal gotten so lost in quest to rise from the ashes of yet another injury-riddled season that he’s forgotten how to play instinctively on a tennis court? Is Nadal’s humility—the very trait that drove him to become the legend that he is—playing a negative role in his tennis?

So many questions, and they just keep coming. Maybe it’s better to just stick to the stats…

Stats via Tennis Abstract

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