Where now for Rafael Nadal?
Its mid May, we are well and truly into the clay court season and Rafael Nadal has yet to win a title. For every other player not named Nadal I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it but for the clay court master, the man who has dominated the surface well over a decade these are concerning times. This week he returns to Rome, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs in the hope that he can finally break the 2019 ceiling and make a final.
2019 started so well. Rafael Nadal 2.0 almost seemed like a new player, an ultra aggressive baseliner, keen to finish the rallies within a few shots. He demolished the field until he got to the final and reverted to Nadal 1.0. The guy prepared to grind and chase everything. Sadly he encountered a Novak Djokovic on a mission, dialled in to every ball and he was well and truly broken.
Nadal since suffered with knee injury in Indian Wells and returned to the tour at the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters followed by the Open Banc Sabadell of Barcelona. In both events the Majorcan suffered uncharacteristic losses before the final. So the question must be asked, is Rafa off form or are more players simply working him out?
I would say it is a bit of both. Nadal dominated for so many years and may still yet continue his dominance. The guys he beat, Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and so on all were serial losers against Nadal. These guys had built up some serious scar tissue from defeat after defeat against Nadal. What probably made the situation worse is that Nadal is so humble win or lose despite being an absolute beast on court.
The guys that Nadal has lost to, Thiem, Tsitsipas and others are all young and ignorant ( but in a good way) of the threat that Nadal possesses. Youthful innocence. They are resilient and have shown great bounce-backability. They are also helped by the fact that they have seen how to beat Nadal. Seeing is one thing but executing is another but generally speaking the young guys are no longer afraid to go toe to toe with Rafa, take the ball earlier and hit flatter and harder than ever before. I loved the Khachanov Nadal match at the US Open. No matter how much the Russian was knocked back he stood up time and time again.
Rome and the Italian Open will offer one of two scenarios for Rafael Nadal and fans. Either it confirms what we all already know but are reluctant to admit that Nadal is on a gentle decline. Or that the last few tournaments are but a blip on his career and he will show the shoots of recovery on the road to a twelfth Roland Garros title.