Testing times for Nadal

Herman Mostert (File)
Herman Mostert (File)
Rafael Nadal’s latest clay loss leaves the world’s No 1-ranked tennis player in uncharted territory ahead of the year’s second Grand Slam at Roland Garros.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic defeated Nadal in the Rome Masters final last Sunday to narrow his head-to-head rating against the Spaniard to 19-22.

Since losing to Nadal in last year’s US Open final, Djokovic has beaten his great rival four straight times, winning eight of the nine sets they have played.

But it will be the latest Djokovic triumph that would have been the most significant, as it was done on the Spaniard’s beloved clay surface - on which he has looked surprisingly fragile in the last few weeks.

Nadal appears to have lost some confidence after his unexpected Australian Open final hiccup against Stanislas Wawrinka in January. He was the red-hot favourite to beat Wawrinka for a 14th career Grand Slam and close in on Roger Federer’s record of 17 major titles, but was outplayed for a set-and-a-half by Wawrinka before a back injury put paid to any hopes he had of mounting a comeback.

In a bid to regain confidence, Nadal went to the clay of Rio de Janeiro in February where he won the tournament, beating Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov in the final.

However, with no other big-name players in the draw, Nadal was expected to win there and it was one match in particular which caught the eye of this writer: his Rio semi-final duel against relatively unknown countryman Pablo Andujar, currently ranked 69th in the world.

In this match - against a player he would normally dispatch with relative ease - Nadal scraped to a 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (12/10) win, saving two match points in the process.

Nadal went on to edge Dolgopolov in the final but left Rio perhaps still short of confidence.

A few weeks later Nadal again faced Dolgopolov at the Indian Wells Masters, with the latter exacting revenge for his previous loss, winning their hard-court duel 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (7/5).

Nadal made the final of his next tournament at the Miami Masters, but was soundly beaten 6-3, 6-3 by Djokovic.

The losses were by no means alarming and it was expected that Nadal would regain his confidence in the European clay-court season which followed.

But he began the Euro clay-court swing with a shock quarter-final loss to countryman David Ferrer at the Monte Carlo Masters. It was the first time Ferrer had beaten Nadal on clay in 10 years and also came at a tournament Nadal had previously only lost twice at, having won the title eight straight years between 2005 and 2012.

Nadal was then stunned by another countryman, Nicolas Almagro, in the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Open the following week. It was Almagro’s first ever win over Nadal at his 11th attempt.

Nadal then bounced back to defend his Madrid Masters clay title the following week when Japan’s Kei Nishikori retired while trailing 3-0 in the deciding set.

However, many pundits would have put an asterisk next to that final after the Japanese No 1 pulled up with a back injury.

Nishikori, employing an ultra-aggressive style, was playing sublime tennis, cracking winners left right and centre. He seemed on the brink of an upset, leading 6-2, 4-2 before the injury curse struck.

Needless to say, he didn’t win another game as Nadal stormed into a 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 lead before Nishikori called it quits.

However, the type of tennis Nishikori displayed for a set-and-a-half was breathtaking and Nadal seemingly had no answer. He was pushed further and further back behind the baseline and looked certain to go down.

Despite the win in Madrid, it seemed evident in Nadal’s game last week that he was still a bit unsure about where his game was at.

In Rome, he uncharacteristically dropped sets in his first three matches against Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray.

Against Murray - a player who is himself searching for top form following back surgery - Nadal was on the brink of going out. He had lost the first set 6-1 and trailed 4-2 in the decider before eventually prevailing 1-6, 6-3, 7-5.

Murray had also dominated Nadal with an aggressive approach of taking the ball early, while the Spaniard was again caught way back behind the baseline. However, in the end Murray’s lack of experience on clay (he has never won a title on this surface!) seemed to prove his undoing.

Nadal beat Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov in the semi-finals before again coming unstuck against Djokovic in Sunday’s final.

What was significant about Djokovic’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 win was the fact that he crushed 46 winners compared to Nadal’s meagre 15 - employing a similar style Nishikori had done the previous Sunday in Madrid.

It must be noted that I am by no means implying that Nadal has no chance going into the French Open, which starts on Sunday; I am merely noting that some doubts should be creeping into the mind of the Spaniard.

For the first time in 10 years, Nadal will enter Roland Garros with only one European clay-court title behind his name!

There could be many reasons for Nadal’s slight decline. Is it simply a lack of confidence? Are the other players starting to believe more against him on clay? Perhaps time and a constant gruelling game-plan are slowly starting to catch up with the soon-to-be 28-year-old?

All of these are perhaps worthy of a column for another day, but one thing is certain: Nadal is not going into the French Open with the same confidence he has in the last decade.

It will be tougher to beat him over best of five sets, and especially at a place where he has lost only once before, but a few players will surely believe more than they would have in years gone by.

I still wouldn’t bet against him winning a ninth title in Paris, but given recent form, surely Djokovic - who could reclaim the world No 1 spot from Nadal at the French Open - has to at least be joint favourite alongside the Spaniard to claim the title.

Nadal would be hoping a Serbian is not at the other end of the net should he reach the Roland Garros final in a few weeks’ time...

Herman Mostert works at Sport24 - and fancies himself as a bit of a tennis player and sports writer...

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.
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