Day 11 of the French Open was a day like (almost) no other.
Rafael Nadal lost at the French Open.
It had only happened once before, yet Wednesday’s loss did not send the same brain shattering reverberations throughout the tennis world. We didn’t ask what had just happened, nor did we have to process the result as something seemingly segmented from reality.
It really happened, but it really wasn’t hard to believe.
For much of the final set and a half, the nine-time French Open champion provided little resistance to top seed Novak Djokovic who, in his own right, played an absolutely stellar match — hitting 45 winners to 30 unforced errors. Nadal matched the Serb’s error total, but only halved his winners.
Djokovic has already been playing at an other-worldly level in 2015, and didn’t need Nadal to spoon-feed opportunities to be aggressive and create openings. The Spaniard seemed resigned to the result as the match progressed. Sure, there were moments where his fiery grit resurfaced. But by and large, he was beaten into mental and physical submission by a superior rival.
It was hard to watch a player, one who had been more successful at Roland Garros than any other, look so deflated and helpless. This can be attributed to an opponent playing out of his mind, but much of it also had to do with Nadal not displaying his typical “kingly” form on clay.
It’s more than declaring Nadal as a player “past his prime.” Time dictates that as a given, but the Spaniard was hardly even a shadow of that former self. One could argue that, even if Djokovic had came out below his best, it probably would have been more than enough, given the opposition.
Nadal himself admitted that he was disappointed with his effort in the final set — which he lost 6-1. When do you ever hear Rafael Nadal say something like that? The former No. 1 made a living — and won his 14 major titles — on his unrelenting fight and tenacity.
It’s all a bit reminiscent of Nadal’s French Open quarterfinal against David Ferrer where, last year, Nadal took Ferrer to school in the final three sets. Ferrer came out in press saying similar things, that he just wasn’t able to muster the necessary effort to stay competitive.
Two guys known for their heart making such admissions is really shocking — no matter how badly they have beaten. Most tennis players mentally cave when they feel the gap between their level and that of their opponent’s is too much to overcome, even with their best foot put forward.
It’s hard not to think that’s how Nadal felt today.
What does all mean for his future? Who knows. He has come back from injury and poor stretches of play before, but a drought on red dirt leaves a heightened amount of concern. He next enters an unfriendly part of the season; grass courts haven’t been his forte since his reaching the 2011 Wimbledon final, so it will be interesting to see how he does with virtually no points to defend for the last five months of the season.
As of now, Nadal is provisionally ranked No. 10 in the world.
Because it may be a mere matter of more consistent execution, his issues might simply take more and more matches to resolve. After all, he did play four fabulous games from 0-4 down in the first set, and stayed close with Djokovic until late in the second.
The shots are still there for Nadal, but they aren’t as consistent as they used to be. The difference will require taking what he did to stay close and expanding that an entire match and, most critically, during big points.
People are already asking if this is the end for Nadal. If Roger Federer’s 2013 season is any historical precedent, this is a horrible question to pose so soon. The Spaniard has had a rough six months, but he’s also one of the greatest players in history.
The case may look bad, but no verdict has been reached.