More eyes are on Rafael Nadal than ever before, and it’s not because he’s performing well. Instead, the usually undisputed “King of Clay” has wavered, leaving millions scratching their heads about his fate at Roland Garros, especially after his loss to Andy Murray at the Mutua Madrid Open final on Sunday.
“Of course it’s not the day I was expecting,” Nadal told the press. “It’s one of those days where things just didn’t work out. I have to delete what happened today.”
Nadal has always been honest and straightforward in defeat and victory. His coach and uncle, Toni, raised him to respect the game and the people that make up its universe. Yet this final was such a dismal display, after having played brilliantly in prior rounds. So, no matter Nadal’s explanation that his backhand was out of whack — which it was — and forehand errors accumulated — which he wrote off as a result of his poor backhand — his performance shocked.
“I just wanted to do things right,” Nadal said. “Maybe I was a little nervous. I think I lost it very early. The match started badly. It’s a pity that the start was bad. I had played well, yesterday’s match for example.”
At the Miami Open in March, Nadal told the press that his nerves played a role in another rather shocking loss. That time, his conquerer was Fernando Verdasco in the third round. Nadal was asked then if he had had enough matches to build momentum for the season.
“The thing [that] is the question is being enough relaxed to play well on court,” he said. “Today, my game is generally improved, since a month and a half. But, at the same time, still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments. [I’m] still playing with a little bit of anxious on those moments. For example, in the 4‑3 in the first set, and then in the 5‑4, 30‑love. Something that didn’t happen a lot during my career. I have been able to be under control, control my emotions during, let’s say, 90%, 95% of my matches of my career, something that today is being tougher to be under self‑control. But I gonna fix it. I don’t know if in one week, in six months, or in one year, but I gonna do it.”
Yet, the doubt continues, and he isn’t one to hide it.
“Also in the key points, when you might just step in the match again, I was not there.”
And … “Well, then my forehand is not going to be effective. Then you just have a lot of doubts.”
Another … “What was really bad was in the second set. Everything went really much worse. I just let the possibility fade away.”
And, finally … “I was able to win my serves and afterwards when I was returning I had a 15‑40 and then there was another break point. I couldn’t go for it.”
These are uncharacteristic words from Nadal, especially, “I couldn’t go for it.”
How will Nadal return to rule his clay kingdom?
In Rafael Nadal: The Secrets of a Giant, a Tennis Channel broadcast, one of Nadal’s earliest coaches, Jofre Porta, spoke about Nadal’s rituals that millions of viewers have witnessed over his 14-year career.
“The rituals help Nadal calm down, recover and focus for the next point,” Porta asserted during the broadcast.
But, in concert, these routines did not do the trick against Murray; or against Fabio Fognini in Acapulco and Barcelona; or against Novak Djokovic in Monte Carlo; or against Milos Raonic in Indian Wells.
“We have worked on his strength of mind from the very beginning, knowing how important it was” Coach Toni Nadal said, during Secrets of a Giant. “The mental challenge has become our way of life.”
At a younger age, Nadal’s energy on court mesmerized millions. It still does, but perhaps with age and injury, doubt has found a corner of his mind to nestle in. Without strong repeated performances, doubt could, as it seems to have done already, undermine his intuitions — which then transfer to a falling off of sound footwork, stroke production, and consistency.
“This is sport. Sometimes things work out better and others they don’t, and it doesn’t matter. That’s all. That’s all the story. This is just a game,” he said in Madrid. “Let’s see what happens in the future. I will fight for better results.”
Therein lies the answer.
“Other players when they leave with injuries or problems, I don’t see even single player goes out there fighting for everything. Murray had a very regular year last year and this year he’s playing great,” Nadal began. “He left with an injury, and then took him a year to be back on the same track and feel what he’s feeling today. Things are not that simple, and for me, they have never been.”
Nadal did not leave Madrid unhappy. Instead, he left with a bundle of positive experiences he hopes to build on in Rome.
Today in Rome, he defeated qualifier Marsel Ilhan, 6-2 6-0. The Turkish man was not a major challenge; however, Nadal hit with depth and conviction off both wings. He wasted not time getting the job done, and tomorrow a taller challenge in John Isner awaits.
“I’ll try to have a good week in Rome,” he said in Madrid. “And by a good week that does not mean only to win. That means to do things well every single day. That’s a good week. I know that if I manage to play the level I did yesterday [against Tomas Berdych], I can be competitive against every single player. So this is the path I have to follow and that’s what I’m going to try. I’m going to die to try and continue in yesterday’s path.”
Adversity is not foreign to Nadal. He has thrived in its bumpy atmosphere, especially after months of injury layoffs. In 2013, he stormed back to win 10 titles, including his eighth Roland Garros.
Nadal remains as much a student of the game at 27 as he was at 10 years old. His intense focus and otherworldly aspirations, which are reflected in his odd-ball body tics, are keys to any possibility that he’ll revive his clay-court genius and make a solid run at Roland Garros, perhaps winning his 10th title.
We should also remember that his clay-court seasons between 2013 and 2015 reveal a rough approach into Paris — nerves or no nerves. He has lost in Monte Carlo for three consecutive years. He was fast on his way to losing Madrid, too, against Kei Nishikori in 2014 when the Japanese pulled up with a bad back/hip injury and retired from the final. Nadal lost in the quarterfinals to Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona in 2014, and Fabio Fognini took him out a year later for the Italian’s second consecutive win on clay over Nadal this season. To top it off, he lost to Djokovic in Rome last year.
Then … he won Roland Garros.
There is another reason to count him out of Paris, though. It goes beyond his game, insistent habits, mental fortitude and consistent performances. If Nadal is seeded No. 7 or No. 8, the bar would be set so high that the climb could be impossible even for the man with a 66-1 record in the “City of Lights.”
Nadal, though, would probably say “…That’s sport,” take time to fish, rely on his family for recovery and come back. For right now, a bright spotlight remains on his side of the court, as the drama of the red-clay season rolls on.