by Sharada Iyer
Back in 2019, Rafael Nadal famously declared in a press conference at the Rome Open, “What happened in Monte Carlo happened. And what happened in Barcelona happened. And what happened in Madrid happened. And here we are. We are in Rome.”
That year Nadal, who had gone without a title on clay after losing in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, finally struck the trophy gold on the surface in the Italian capital. Thereafter, it was smooth sailing for the Mallorcan on the last – and the biggest – tournament on the red dirt as he claimed his 12th title at the French Open to close out the clay season emphatically despite a slow start by his usual standards.
Cut to 2021, Nadal’s trajectory on clay has been near-similar to 2019. He did win the title in Barcelona but in the two Masters 1000 events in Monte Carlo and Madrid, he exited in the quarter-finals. But then, as Nadal so eloquently put it, “There we were. We were in Rome.”
And Rome did deliver, yet again. Nadal’s win over Novak Djokovic in the final was his 10th title at the event – the fourth such event after the French Open, Monte Carlo and Barcelona, where he had won 10 titles each. It was also the 36th Masters’ title he’d won – a record he’d levelled with Djokovic. It was also the 88th title of Nadal career.
Beyond these statistical imprints, however, this title had a much wider significance not only for the player in question but also for tennis’ audiences around the world.
Nadal’s Rome victory has then come about as the reaffirmation of his status as the favourite for the French Open. This is the umpteenth time that the world no. 3 has emerged as the pick for winning the Major on clay and by all means, it should have invoked boredom by now. But the grip of dominance he’s retained over the tournament has a certain fascinating appeal not unlike seeing him slide on Court Philippe Chatrier and loop a forehand over his head for a winner.
What’s also fascinating about Nadal’s dominance is that, over the years, it’s passed through different phases. If, in the initial years of his making a mark on clay by way of Paris, he started off as a near-invincible opponent, these last two years have seen him turn into a vulnerable rival. Then, it is in these tournaments that serve as markers on the road to Paris where his vulnerableness has been at its peak, threatening to disrupt his dominance at the French Open.
This year, despite his laurels in Barcelona and Rome, Nadal continued to remain vulnerable – and at times, tentative – all throughout the four tournaments. In the latter event, he struggled in his first two matches against Jannik Sinner and Denis Shapovalov respectively before finding his form in the last three matches. In fact, the whole point about Nadal notching La Decima in Rome would have been moot had Shapovalov made good on either of the two match points he held against the Spaniard in the third round.
Thus, looking back at that match – and all others – where Nadal has had push back harder at the player on the other end of the court, it’s to be noted that his vulnerability hasn’t transitioned into weakness on the surface but on the contrary, has brought out – for want of a better phrase – his survival instincts.
Not that every match where he’s had to play in this manner has gone his way, either in terms of the result itself or in terms of Nadal managing to effectuate a turnaround. But each time that the 20-time Grand Slam champion has had to brace himself against a better-playing opponent, his performances have reiterated two facets, in particular.
The first that Nadal’s repositioned himself as someone who can put in the hard yards – even on the surface he’s most comfortable and most successful. And the second that he’s not expecting triumphs to keep coming his way, as if they were goodwill assets promised to him in perpetuity.
From this perspective, these wins – or rather, the win in Rome – also add to the heft that is his status as the French Open favourite. For, if Nadal was a determinedly unbeatable opponent at the French Open before, his fallibility has accentuated his determination to not be beaten there.
In Rome, it was this determination that carried Nadal through in his match against Shapovalov first and then again against Djokovic, in the final.
The world no. 1, after his defeat, mentioned on-court, “We are reinventing the Next Gen, Rafa, myself and Roger. We are the Next Gen.” And after seeing what’s happened in Rome, there’s no doubt that Rafael Nadal’s been holding up this generational mantle with aplomb.