The battle for the French Open took a new twist on Sunday as Novak Djokovic displayed his unquestionable resilience with a come-from-behind victory over Rafael Nadal in another classic encounter in the final of the Italian Open.
Djokovic’s form was questionable coming into Rome, after a wrist injury had set him back in Madrid. While his road to the final was an arduous one, he benefitted from the tough matches that served him well against Nadal. In the final he played with a ferocity and skill that we haven’t seen from him all year.
During this year’s clay season, Nadal’s supremacy has taken a few jabs. His recent losses to compatriots Nicolas Almagro and David Ferrer had caused a slight ripple in the tennis world. It wasn’t that people were surprised to see Nadal lose a couple of matches, however rare that is, it’s that those losses came on his favourite surface.
In winning the title at Madrid, Nadal restored order after a disconcerting stumble on clay. But what was significant about those losses was that they weren’t matches which both Ferrer and Alamagro exactly won, it’s that Nadal lost them. There was a lot missing from his game. For a player who’s exceptionally stingy with unforced errors and probably the best player when defending and converting break points, he’s still making too many mistakes when he’s up and not attacking enough when he’s down.
While there may have been physical, mental or tactical issues at play here, could it be just that his era of dominance is waning? Nadal isn’t old, or past his prime, but the fact remains that in tennis, 27 is an age when a player’s career arc starts taking its downward turn. In June, Nadal will be turning 28.
Yet if one is looking for more tangible reasons for Nadal’s little “slump” – if you want to call it that – we’d have to start with this year’s Australian Open.
Nadal desperately wanted to win Down Under for several reasons. Above all among them, it would have given him a “double career Slam” – the rare achievement of having won each Slam twice. His total Grand Slam tally would be at 14 Slams, inching him closer to Federer’s record of 17. Like Federer, Nadal is at the stage of his career when it’s primarily about Grand Slams. The mental fallout from his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka clearly left him suffering from the worst affliction for an athlete: Doubt.
Nadal’s whole game is designed around confidence. When Nadal isn’t feeling confident, –which is what he alludes to when he speaks about the “feeling” – his game loses its edge. He loses power off his primary weapon – his forehand. Instead of attacking down the line, or hitting his vicious whiplash forehand inside-out, Nadal reverts to a cross-court strategy where he ends up hitting his ground strokes too short, allowing his opponents to gain the upper hand in extended rallies.
It’s also interesting that both the 2010 and 2013 season, Nadal’s two most exceptional years, came after his ranking had dropped because of injury. Like a predator after an unsuccessful hunt, Nadal plays best when he’s got something to prove. He’s held the No.1 ranking for a while now, and ask any professional athlete and he or she will tell you that getting to the top is a lot easier than staying there.
Is it simply that Nadal is entering a different phase of his career? He isn’t the fresh-faced phenom that he once was. He’s now a veteran starting the second act of his career. As with all great players, the latter years will be spotted with losses previously unheard of. And each loss will give other players hope against him.
As Pete Bodo wrote in Tennis Magazine, “If you’re familiar with the concept of ‘metal fatigue,’ you’ll know what I mean. Bend a piece of metal often enough and at some point it grows weak and breaks. And that’s what happens to the focus of the greatest of champions. Their focus fails at unexpected times, much like a piece of metal that finally snaps after so much stress.”
And it’s not a matter of technique or strategy. Nadal’s game hasn’t really changed, and it certainly hasn’t declined, but what’s happened is that Nadal who, like all great champions, was able to lift his game at peak moments by a sheer act of will, just hasn’t been able to do it lately. It’s an X factor that even the players themselves can’t explain. It just happened, and now it suddenly isn’t, which explains Nadal’s often conflicted body language on court this spring.
During those losses, Nadal often appeared slump-shouldered, shuffling from one side of the court to the other after missing a big point. His glances up to the player’s box weren’t the fiery clenched-fist bellows of “Vamos” but concerned glances of doubt as if to ask, “Why isn’t it working anymore?”
Nadal reached the final in Rome and won Madrid, albeit through a retirement from Kei Nishikori, in a match in which he was just two games shy of losing before he capitalised on the Japanese star's injury and turned things around. While he may have gained some confidence, Nadal doesn’t look his impregnable self quite yet. Players around him would be wont to feel as if Nadal circa 2014 is one who can be tamed when the French Open rolls around in a few weeks. Djokovic certainly has the silverware to think so.
That’s not to say that it’s going to be easy by any measure. Beating Nadal over the course of five sets is one of the toughest challenges in tennis, to say nothing of doing it on clay. He’s inarguably the greatest clay court tennis player ever. Period. And if you have doubts about that contention, let’s take a look at the numbers.
Out of 322 clay court matches, Nadal has won 311and lost 24, bagging 43 titles, which is second only to Guillermo Vilas’ 46. Do the math and that’s a ridiculous winning percentage of 92.8. And this is why Nadal’s two most recent losses grabbed headlines. We’re just not accustomed to see him lose on clay.
So who’s going to play spoiler in Paris?
Djokovic would seem to be the logical foil given his recent victory and how well his game matches against Nadal. While his spring hasn’t lived up to expectations, Sunday’s victory went a long way in salvaging it. He’s gunning for a career slam and he’s definitely got the Big Mo going for him.
Andy Murray was impressively defiant against Nadal in Rome, but it seems that he has yet to recover completely from his back surgery last fall and it’s hard to see him go beyond the semis in Paris, so that leaves Federer.
With the birth of a second set of twins, he is riding a high in the personal sphere. He skipped Madrid for the birth and was surprised in Rome by Jeremy Chardy. With twin newborns back home, his head was clearly not on the court, not to take anything away from Chardy who saved a match point with a sizzling pass that left Federer like a dear in the headlights. Federer looked good in Monte Carlo, though, only to be beaten by his now higher-ranked compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka in the final. But who are we kidding? Nadal v. Federer always equals Nadal. It’s simple tennis math.
But could the Stanimal be Nadal’s undoing? By wining Monte Carlo, Wawrinka has established himself as a big-gun and proved he’s not just a one-trick pony. He’s broken the big four dictatorship and he’ll have the memory of Australia to guide him.
There are a few other dark horses too such as Alamagro and Ferrer who’ve done it most recently and even Nishikori who almost pulled it off. But almost is a painful word in tennis. Andy Roddick almost won Wimbledon. Federer almost achieved a calendar slam, twice!
But is this the year that Nadal’s years of dominance begin their inevitable end? Is there a chink in the armour that players have noticed? Every great player goes through something like what Nadal is presently experiencing. There’s no more mortifying a sports cliché, as the champion who gets up off the mat to dust himself off and go on to win the fight. But if Nadal has proved anything, it’s that he loves a good challenge.
Even with Djokovic’s win in Rome, the smart money for the French Open remains to be on Nadal. But whatever his statistics, it just takes one player to defy them. Robin Soldering has done it before. This year it just might be someone else.