Rafael Nadal has an intriguing way of handling mental pressure. Whenever he is asked by an interviewer about an upcoming match, he always finds a way to put the pressure onto his opponent and deflect it from himself. He never admits to feeling any kind of threat or stress. It’s always the other guy who has something to prove. And if he happens to lose, he always praises his opponent’s current form – almost as if implying that the loss may be real now but it may not happen again in the future.
It’s an interesting ploy that at the same time accomplishes two things. First, as I said, it allows Rafa to deny feeling any psychological pressure. And second, it allows him to praise his opponents while taking nothing away from himself. Notice that I am only saying that it allows him to deny feeling pressure. In point of fact we are not always clear what Rafa himself is actually feeling. He keeps his emotions closely guarded.
In the early days I used to wonder if Rafa sometimes hid behind his lack of mastery of English to remain emotionally private. Now that his command of this language has clearly grown by leaps and bounds, he seems to have learned how to play with words so that he can convey his intended message – all of the pressure is on the other guy. Rafa chooses his words carefully when interviewed as he is about to step onto a tennis court. As opposed to Lleyton Hewitt who always looks as if he would rather strangle the interviewer than answer these predictable questions, Rafa seems to relish the opportunity to tighten the screws just a little.
This strategy was honed on his best rival, Roger Federer, against whom it was often hugely effective – despite Roger’s awareness that he was being played. I know he was aware because he himself has commented on Rafa’s little mind game. But just because you can see a ploy a mile away doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to work against you.
But it was interesting to watch how this same mind game failed spectacularly against Djokovic yesterday. Part of its ineffectiveness of course may be due to the fact that by now everyone is onto Rafa and can smell his predictable BS coming from a while away. As he stepped onto the court at Indian Wells yesterday, Rafa offered up his typical BS about how all of the pressure was about to be on Djokovic. I had to laugh. Given how often he repeats this crap, it’s amazing how much he continues to look as if he means it. But that too is part of the success of this strategy at reducing pressure on himself.
But it is impossible to deny that the person under pressure yesterday was Rafael Nadal himself. Man was he feeling the hurt. Sure he fought back gamely to take the second set. But by the third set he was almost a shadow of his former self. I joked on twitter that Djokovic started reminding me of Wozniacki – he just kept getting balls back and getting balls back. Nothing that Rafa came up with fazed him. Sure there were moments of angry muttering, but there was never a moment in which Djokovic lost his confidence.
But here’s Rafa talking to reporters after the losing match. See if you can detect the psychological ploy: “After Roland Garros, I will tell you who is the biggest favorite to be No. 1, because is after two months of competition. Only thing I can tell you is Djokovic is in the best position. Right now he’s playing on his favorite surface, I think, because hard court, outdoor I think is when he plays better. It's his favorite surface. So he has confidence, he's playing well; he's a very good player. We will see what's going on in the clay season. After this, first six months of the season, we start to see what are the chances of everybody.”
In other words, yes Djokovic is enjoying a current run of form, but wait until I meet him on my surface, then we will see who is boss. Rafa then went on to say essentially that it doesn’t matter who becomes # 1 during the year, it matters who ends the year at the #1 position. Now that is a sweet mind game.
Not to be outdone, Djokovic responded that he felt that he had beaten the best player in the world – a diss that I think was double-barreled at both Federer and Nadal. Rafa’s response was to laugh, tell the reporters to tell his good friend thanks, and then dismiss Djokovic’s attempt at a mind game with: “But it's not true. It's stupid”. (Message to Caroline ‘Kangaroo’ Wozniacki – this is how it’s done.)