The sky isn’t falling for Rafael Nadal. This is not a crisis. This isn’t even a genuine cause for worry. Nadal is still working his way back from injury, and as he approaches his 33rd birthday this June, it is plain fact of life that recovering from injuries will probably take more time as one gets older. Nadal said after his loss to Fabio Fognini in Saturday’s Monte Carlo semifinal that he didn’t feel he was all the way back — not yet.
He played like a player who was not especially sharp.
Nadal usually handles windy conditions better than he did.
Nadal usually finds a way to make a positive imprint on a match with his forehand — he didn’t ever do that against Fognini.
Nadal usually makes opponents work extremely hard for wins — in the second set, that didn’t really happen.
There were plenty of flaws to choose from in Rafa’s unusual Monte Carlo stumble (a stumble which only makes his run of dominance in the principality that much more amazing and “Phenomenadal”). Various observers might arrive at various opinions — and varying levels of severity — in their assessments of what this means for Rafa as we turn to Barcelona and beyond.
I have only one point of focus: Rafa’s serve was not a safe place for him on red clay. That is the one thing — more than anything else — he and his team should be mindful of as April turns into May and leads to Paris for Roland Garros.
This set of stats from the Fognini semifinal was eye-popping, and to me, the serve statistics were the most telling ones:
Numbers behind a major upset on clay
1st serve points won
Fognini 63% Nadal 44%
2d serve points won
Fognini 54% Nadal 39%
Break points won
Fognini 6/10 Nadal 3/4
Fognini 21 Nadal 10
Fognini 22 Nadal 25#TennisChannel
— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) April 20, 2019
One of the central realities of a normal Nadal match on clay is that Rafa doesn’t often need a huge serve to win his own service points. On a great many occasions, the biggest advantage for Rafa as a server on clay is simply that his serve gets to start the point in a way the opponent can’t easily attack. A solid, no-frills serve becomes a shot the opponent can’t rip for a winner. Nadal hardly ever starts a rally on his own serve from a defensive position. He gets into neutral or advantageous positions almost all the time.
Because Rafa likes to grind down his opponents and count on his stamina winning the day in a prolonged battle — if a battle even reaches a prolonged stage in the first place — he doesn’t feel the need to have to win points quickly. He is content to hit high-percentage shots to the corners, playing with margin and knowing he can dictate the terms of a rally. Nadal doesn’t need cheap points on serve — not when he can win nine-stroke points on serve, almost always play points on his terms, and wear out opponents in the process. This has been a constant pathway to clay dominance on a scale which has never been matched.
With all this in mind, Nadal’s serve getting punished by Fognini to the extent that it was on Saturday is an eye-opener. Nadal could not play points the way he wanted to play them on his serve. The lack of the forehand was a big part of this lack of success, but it does bring up the point that on days when the forehand isn’t firing, Nadal might need to win some cheap service points. He might have to find ways of winning points more quickly.
No, the sky isn’t falling. This isn’t any kind of crisis. The main thing is for Nadal to play his way into form — assuming he does, all should be well in Paris.
It is merely noteworthy that Nadal couldn’t find safety on his serve. If he does get into a tough spot in Paris, this is something for him to file away and consider in a moment of difficulty, perhaps against Mr. Djokovic.