Before going any further, let’s put this into perspective. Rafael Nadal has won 9 French Open titles in 10 years, after winning 66 of his last 67 games at Roland Garros. He holds the record for the most consecutive titles at a particular tournament after winning his eighth straight Monte-Carlo Masters in 2012. Until this year, he had not been beaten before the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Open since he was 16. He went undefeated in the 2006 and 2010 clay-court seasons, losing just four times on the red-stuff in that five-year stretch. He has won 296 of his 320 matches on tennis’s most physically challenging of landscapes. Out of his 65 career singles titles to date, 46 of them have come on clay.
For the last decade, Rafael Nadal has been the undisputed King of Clay. The surface has been his personal property, Roland Garros his Kingdom. However, as the French Open approaches, Nadal’s grip on the title appears to be loosening, his dominance on clay diminishing. So can Rafa become the first man to win the same Grand Slam 10 times? Is he still the King of Clay?
The evidence suggests not. Nadal is in the midst of a crisis, by his standards anyway. He has played six tournaments in 2015 on his favourite surface and won just one: in Buenos Ares, where the highest-ranked player he faced was No.59 Federico Delbonis. The greatest clay-courter of all time has lost five of his 22 matches on the surface already this year and has been beaten in straight sets by Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka. Nadal has fallen-short at all three of the main warm-up tournaments ahead of the French Open at Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome, although he did reach the final in the Spanish capital before being overwhelmed by Murray. Quarter-final and last-16 defeats in Monte Carlo and Rome were not what anyone expected. Fans can’t be accused of over-exaggerating his predicament - Nadal had won at least 2 of these titles 8 times in the last 10 years and has never gone into the French Open without winning at least one. Until now. The slump across all surfaces goes back a year – he has only beaten one top-10 opponent since he lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires in 2014. After his 3rd round defeat to Fabio Fognini at the Barcelona Open, the second time the Italian had beaten him during this clay-court season, the bookmaker odds on him lifting it again this time round were the longest since he was a teenager.
So where has it all gone wrong? What is remarkable, considering the ferociousness of Nadal and his reputation as one of the most strong-willed and determined players to have graced a court, is that the man from Mallorca looks completely shot of confidence. At times you can almost see it draining away from him with every wince, sigh and drop of the head on the surface he adores so much. He’s looked a stranger on the courts that he has always felt so at home on. Some say he is carrying more mental baggage, wrestling with the mental doubts that have gradually augmented in his head. Others point out that his recent change of racket, apparently to ensure he gets more spin on the ball, was an unwise call. Watching him play, his ability to pull players left and right like a puppeteer has become sporadic, the shouts of ‘Vamos’ and mind-boggling winners becoming conspicuous by their absence. Nadal looks a split-second later in getting to balls, which is arguably putting him on the defensive more, something which the top players are notifying and capitalising on. It all means that this year, for the first time in ten, Nadal will arrive in Paris ranked outside the top 4 players in the world.
The chances of Nadal, the only man to have won at least one Grand Slam for 10 consecutive years, succeeding again in Paris is thus made harder due to the fact that he could face one of Djokovic, Murray or Federer in a quarterfinal match. The Serbian world number one is in sublime form and has won every tennis tournament that matters for the past six months. The French Open however still eludes him and he will want it more than ever this time round – the difference this time is that he is not standing in Nadal’s shadow but casting his own silhouette across the draw as the favourite for the title. For three years in a row, twice in a final, he has fallen to Nadal at the French. The chances of that happening again look unlikely. Murray is playing better on clay than he ever has, winning his first clay-court title in Munich and then swiftly following it with his second, brushing Nadal aside in the Madrid Final. Federer, Wawrinka, Nishikori and others will genuinely believe they can dismantle Nadal in his own back yard. This truly is a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of men’s tennis. Rafa admitted that, ‘Today I am not as good as I was…I don’t know if tomorrow I am going to be as good as I was’. These opponents don’t need him to tell them.
Federer has claimed that Nadal will remain the man to beat and we clearly cannot scoff at the notion of him winning the title yet again – he has been better than anyone with coping with the grinding rallies and slow bounces that define clay-court tennis. It is a surface that rewards steel, stamina and heart more than any other and few have had more of that than Nadal over the years. Over five-sets he has been virtually unbeatable on the Court Philipe Chatrier that he owns, thriving in the gladiatorial atmosphere that causes most others to shrink. Nadal at the French Open is still a fearful prospect for opponents, a hurdle they know will be hard to clear no matter how shaky its structure is starting to look. Forced into a corner he has the capacity and the fighting spirit to fling himself back into the reckoning. Indeed he was going through a poor run of form before last year’s tournament that was compounded by a back injury but still went onto win six titles that campaign. Rationality tells us this may be one French Open too far but how often has sport really followed the prudent and logical?
Nadal has said he is going to fight but that was always a given. The French Open kingdom he has built looks vulnerable and ripe for breaching. You simply cannot write him off but Nadal’s mastery of his clay-court dominion has weakened significantly. No dynasty can last forever – Nadal’s reign on clay and in Paris has never looked so perilous.
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