No one has ever doubted Rafael Nadal on red clay. Yet this year is different. Normally the winner of the tournaments leading up to Roland Garros, Nadal has unexpectedly faltered in 2019. He lost in the semifinals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid. That means there’s one more chance for Nadal to right his ship: Rome. If he can win this Masters tournament, he’ll arrive in Paris with justified confidence. If not, he will limp into the City of Lights.
It’s disquieting to even second-guess Nadal’s abilities in Paris. His record, after all, speaks for itself: 86-2, 11 titles. However signs indicate that Nadal, at 32, may not be the top choice to win his 12th Roland Garros. Three men showed Nadal the door this year in those semifinals: Fabio Fognini (Monte Carlo), Dominic Thiem (Barcelona) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (Madrid). Fognini has caused Nadal problems on clay in the past. In 2015, the Italian ousted Nadal in the round of 16 in Barcelona. That year stands as a measure of predicting Nadal’s performance at Roland Garros this year.
Nadal did not win any of the three Masters events or Barcelona, which is a 500 level tournament, in 2015. Additionally, he lost in Paris to Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. So across the board, Nadal’s 2015 clay-court season was a bust, considering his victories from 2005-2019: Monte Carlo (11); Barcelona (11); Madrid (5); and Rome (8, through 2018).
To have lost again to Fognini in Monte Carlo this spring dents Nadal’s veneer even more because he usually finds a way to avenge losses like that, no matter how far in the past they happened (2015). Then, in Barcelona, Thiem, who has stepped on Nadal’s toes outside the Masters circuit, finally put him down. The upset of even greater consequence, though, was Tsitsipas’s victory in Madrid. The 20-year-old’s mind was so finely tuned to withstand Nadal’s onslaught of topspin and ball placement that he outmaneuvered him with his own aggression, athleticism and courageous tactics at the net.
“‘Being honest, my feeling is it was more about me tonight,'” Nadal said, as reported by The New York Times. “‘He is young. He is improving, and he has good talent. But I don’t see myself losing that match if I play the same level that I played in Barcelona in the 2017 final or in Australia at the beginning of the season.'”
Clearly Nadal knows he’s being challenged by youth, but also that he needs to recapture his champion’s game, which carried him two years ago yet is missing now. The question is, can he do that?
Tsitsipas is the men’s star du jour. He first broke into the top 10 in March, having been ranked 71 at the same time in 2018. The 6-4 native of Greece now has beaten the three most enduring players on tour over the last 15 years: Roger Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.
The Rome draw has not been a lucky one for Nadal, yet it is here where he must reverse a trend that could foreshadow his arrival at the second major of the year. He was supposed to have played Wednesday. However, all matches were called due to rainy weather. That means his most ardent adversaries — Tsitsipas, Fognini and Thiem, who are all in Nadal’s half of the draw — will have to wait. He could meet Thiem in the quarterfinals and possibly Tsitsipas or Fognini in the semifinals. As an extra treat, Federer is in the bottom-half mix.
Nadal likes to suffer. He feels his achievements are a direct result of his suffering. Well, this week will provide lots of opportunities for new suffering. If Nadal can recharge his 2017 or 2018 self, a win is surely possible in Rome. Last year he defeated the it-player, Alexander Zverev, for his eighth title. Plus, he had won Monte Carlo and Barcelona by the time Paris got underway. Those were and are good signs for the superstitious and habit-bound Nadal.
However, other signs warn fans and players that Nadal is open for another (third) loss in Paris. This year he’s 0-3 against top-10 players and 0-1 in finals. His record on clay is 9-3; he’s 1-4 after losing the first set of a match.
The pace of change atop the men’s game has been incremental. Odds are Nadal will ramp up for Paris in ways we’ve witnessed over 13 years. However, doubt has been sown and Rome will be a telltale tour stop.
For a complete look at Nadal’s record on clay, please click on this link: RafaRecordOnClayMay2019