On Saturday, I had to mow the lawn at the house where I am petsitting before working my afternoon-shift job, so I didn’t get to see the Rafael Nadal-Stefanos Tsitsipas Madrid semifinal live. I had to wait and watch it on replay.
I was stunned — as I’m sure many of you were — by the third set and how it played out.
Full credit to Tsitsipas. I will write about him after the Madrid final against Novak Djokovic ends. For now, I want to focus on Rafa.
He made so many ordinary mistakes, the kinds of mistakes he simply doesn’t make.
That was surprising enough in itself, but what was more surprising was that Nadal had just played a strong second set. One night earlier, he had played a very convincing quarterfinal against Stan Wawrinka. His game offered every appearance of rounding into form. Everything seemed to be on track…
… and then came that third set against Tsitsipas.
Rafael Nadal really is the tennis version of the Golden State Warriors. He is excellent on the grandest, highest scale. He has proven himself on clay so many times and has shown in the past that he can wobble and teeter on the brink in the lead-up events to the French Open yet rise to the top when it counts at Roland Garros.
Nadal still deserves profound respect relative to Paris. He should still be expected to make the final. He should still be expected to beat Dominic Thiem if the two men play in a Roland Garros semifinal. He should still be able to handle the ATP Tour in France.
Yet, it is clear that much like the Warriors in this current NBA basketball season, the focus and lockdown certitude which define Nadal at his best have not always appeared.
The Warriors lost a lot of home games this past season. They lost a home game to the lowly Phoenix Suns, a team which won only 19 out of 82 games. The Warriors, having played so many games over the past five seasons, know that their energy can’t — and won’t — be close to 100 percent every night. They have to win a lot of the time playing at 75 percent of their full fury and focus. It’s simply the reality of life as an elite athlete.
In an athlete’s prime, sure, one can storm through draws as though they are nothing, but as the effects of age and attrition kick in, athletes have to get by — more and more — on guile and cleverness and handling tight scoreboard situations. Can they still turn it on when it counts? Yes… but they won’t demolish opponents left and right with childlike ease. That’s not going to happen — not as often, at least.
Much as the Warriors looked very ordinary for large portions of this past season, Nadal has looked ordinary this clay season, far more often than we are accustomed to seeing.
Yet, Nadal — like the Warriors in these NBA Playoffs — can still be trusted to deliver at Roland Garros, the clay equivalent of the NBA Finals.
On that point, I won’t back down.
There is one problem, though: Whereas the Houston Rockets — who have lost to the Warriors in four of the last five playoff seasons — cannot be trusted to find winning solutions against Golden State, Nadal DOES have an opponent who can be trusted to rise to a higher level.
There is no NBA equivalent to Djokovic. The Warriors don’t have an opponent which flummoxes or foils them.
Nadal, on the other hand, does.
No, I’m not saying Djokovic should be favored over Nadal in a Roland Garros final, but I AM indeed saying that Nadal’s well-earned trust can be turned into fine powder if Djokovic is on his game and these Warrior-like wobbles from Rafa keep emerging.
The clay citadel of Roland Garros still belongs to Rafael Nadal until proven otherwise, but let’s acknowledge that whereas the Warriors have no peer in the NBA, Nadal actually does have one peer who stands on the same basic plane. This is the ultimate tension point to monitor as the clay season continues.