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Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Updated: November 21, 12:16 PM ET
Is mileage taking toll on Nadal?

Rafael Nadal has never been big on conserving energy. He sprints to the baseline to begin his warm-up as if he'd been locked in a cage for hours. Once the match starts, he spends an insane amount of fuel to run his opponent (and himself) around the court. Even during changeovers, the boy can't sit still, arranging his water bottles with the meticulous care of someone with OCD. But the fist-pumping, pirouetting Spaniard may be running out of gas, or worse, having a crisis in confidence. Back in the spring, he was the Red Menace, unbeatable on clay. Now, his shots don't seem to carry the same sting, and he appears uncertain of what to do on the faster hard courts of the summer and indoor seasons.

Don't believe it? Consider this stat: Since his surprising run to the Wimbledon final this summer, Nadal, the No. 2 player in the world, hasn't made it past the quarterfinals of a single tournament. The players who've beat him --Tomas Berdych, Joachim Johansson, Mikhail Youzhny and Juan Carlos Ferrero -- aren't bush league, but they aren't exactly a murderer's row either.

This week, Nadal lost to a quality opponent, James Blake, in his first round-robin match at the Masters Cup. It wasn't a shock. Blake had a 2-0 record against Nadal going into the match, and the hard court in Shanghai rewards Blake's high-risk, high-reward shots. But Nadal had plenty of chances. He was up a break in the first set, which he eventually lost, and he squandered a 4-0 lead in the second (a run that saw Blake win all of four points) before losing the tiebreaker at love.

You hate to bring up the "C" word, but this match had the markings of a choke.

Nadal's fans will slough off their boy's subpar performance as merely a second-half slump. But it's a portent of potentially bigger problems for him.

Nadal is a grinder. Every one of his matches, and pretty much every one of his points, are incredibly hard fought. Unlike most top players, who cruise through an easy victory now and then, Nadal turns his matches into wars of attrition. The way he fights is admirable, even inspiring, but it's tough on the mind and body.

Nadal reminds me of another grinder, Jim Courier. Remember how J.C. dominated back in the early 1990s, especially during the first half of the season. But by the time the U.S. Open rolled round, he was typically toast. In 1993, he bagged the Australian Open, reach the French Open final, and, like Nadal, surprised everyone by showing up for Breakfast at Wimbledon. The effort left him so spent that he was reading Armistead Maupin's "Maybe the Moon" to keep from losing his mind during changeovers at the season-ending championships in November.

Courier never regained his edge. As forcefully as he became No. 1, he quickly fell out of the top spot and failed to reach another major final over the last six years of his career.

As for Nadal, I wonder if the emotional and physical toll of his game will be his ultimate undoing.

If Nadal is to compete at the highest level for years to come, he must find ways to shorten points. To that end, he can find inspiration in another Jimmy -- Jimmy Connors. He started his career as a grinder, but eventually learned how to take advantage of his penetrating shots by coming to the net and finishing points off. The ingredients are there for Nadal to follow suit: He can control a rally as good as anyone, he has a crafty lefty serve like Jimmy's, and he has far better touch at net.

It's not too early for Nadal to start thinking about retooling his game a little bit. Yes, he's only 20, but Courier was "only" 23 when his unraveling began. As he proved, it's not the years, it's the mileage.