When Rafael Nadal won this summer's French Open, he eclipsed Roger Federer to become the second youngest player ever to reach double-digit Grand Slams, behind only the great Bjorn Borg.
Yet away from clay, 2011 has been a rough stretch for the 25-year-old Spaniard. More specifically, he has had a rough stretch against Novak Djokovic, the world's top ranked player. Djokovic -- who entered the US Open 57-2 on the season -- has defeated Nadal five consecutive times and has looked superior on nearly every level.
Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and longtime coach, has been credited for much of his nephew's success and turned the ambidextrous Nadal into a left-handed player. In his new book, "Rafa," Rafael Nadal said his uncle used reverse psychology to make him a better player and never let him receiving too much praise.
"You have to train people how you want them to act in real life," Toni told The Huffington Post through an interpreter. "Tennis can be a direct reflection of a person's values. I didn't give him a lot of accolades, but he needed to be disciplined."
While Toni was quick to point out that Rafa is still the second ranked player in the world, he is also realistic about the current challenge the Spaniard is facing.
"Djokovic is better than us." he said. "We only have a problem against Djokovic, [but] a problem is when you die."
It's rare to have such candidness from a coach, but the elder Nadal is completely transparent.
"[Djokovic] runs better; his mentality is stronger; and he has changed little things in his game," Nadal said. "He's playing without many mistakes. He is more compact. Before, Djokovic was a wonderful player, but sometimes he made some mistakes. Now the head is very, very strong. [Rafa] thinks he is the best player in the world right now."
For Rafa, overcoming the doubters and slew of pundits is nothing new. Many people have questioned his highly demanding style of play, which has contributed to nagging knee problems over the course of his career. To help combat these injuries, he switched to a hybrid polyester string in 2009 to add more power and allow for more precise angles on his shots.
But with the year Rafa has endured though, strings can only do so much. He hasn't won a tournament since Paris, and he even lost to American Mardy Fish for the first time in his career.
As Toni said, the players are younger and Rafa is getting older.
"I don’t know how many years he can stay at the top," he said. "This is the seventh year that Rafael is at the top, one-two-or-three in the world. How many years more? I don't know. In a few years, Rafa won't be active."
Toni Nadal said he believes one of the issues the ATP World Tour should address is the number of hard court surface events. (More than half of the 82 sanctioned tournaments are played on hard court.)
"[The ATP] has to keep in mind the health of the players' future," he said. "They don't care about the health. All they care about is the show and the money."
"When you finish your tour career, you should be a normal person," Nadal said. "The people who play the most [tennis] are the people who win the most," he added, citing former World No. 1 Gustavo Kuerten, who had injuries derail his career, as an example.
It's not coincidental that American players rarely succeed at Roland Garros, or on the clay circuit at all for that matter. While Europeans play on different surfaces when training, most American players grow up playing solely on hard surfaces.
"Americans love fast games, but that's not necessarily what is best," Toni Nadal said. "Slower is better for spectators and easier on the players, like clay or grass courts. It may seem like I'm trying to favor Rafa, but it's obvious that hard courts have the most negative impact."
But hard courts are precisely where the Nadal camp hopes Rafa can succeed during the next couple weeks. Despite the fact that his foot gave him trouble in the recent Rogers Cup in Montreal -- where he lost to 33rd-ranked Ivan Dodig in the second round -- Toni insists that Rafa is completely healthy.
Coming off his 2010 US Open title, Nadal is seeded second overall behind Djokovic. Even so, a relatively easy draw leading to a potential semi-final matchup against Andy Murray suggests another early round upset is unlikely.
Or as the elder Nadal said, quite simply: "I hope [the troubles against Djokovic] will change this week."
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