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Steve Flink: The Plight of Rafael Nadal

4/29/2014 1:00:00 PM

Those who succeed most frequently in the world of sports are held to the highest of standards. They are expected to win almost every time they compete. Most of their victories are taken for granted, while their defeats are examined excessively by many observers through a magnifying glass, and often blown way out of proportion. In many ways, the great players can be prisoners of their triumphs, judged harshly even by their most ardent admirers, asked by their vast legion of supporters to perform above and beyond what may be possible. The reality is that sometimes champions fall into unfamiliar patterns, losing their way psychologically, questioning their own credentials, becoming their own harshest critics.

And so it is with Rafael Nadal at the moment. The tennis community is in a state of bewilderment and even astonishment over the Spaniard’s back to back quarterfinals losses on clay at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, a shocking development to be sure. The redoubtable Nadal has been the “King of Clay” for a decade now, and the numbers he has put up on the board are almost beyond reason. Year after year, season after season, no matter what he has done in the early part of the year, regardless of his circumstances, Nadal has stepped up prodigiously during the springtime clay court campaign and built an aura of near invincibility around himself.

Consider what he achieved from 2005-2013 as he dominated comprehensively on the dirt in a manner no one has before, and undoubtedly no one ever will again. Looking solely at the events leading up to Roland Garros across April and May in those nine seasons, Nadal was nothing short of stupendous. In 2005, he lost in his initial appearance on the red clay of Valencia to Igor Andreev, but then captured three titles in a row at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. The Spaniard capped off that superb clay season with his first triumph at Roland Garros when he won his 23rd match in a row on his favorite surface. In 2006, Nadal was even better, winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome to build a 17 match victory streak. He then defended his crown at Roland Garros to finish the spring clay season with a 24-0 match record. A year later, Nadal swept 19 matches in a row on the clay leading up to Roland Garros, winning again in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome. He lost in the final of Hamburg to Roger Federer, but avenged that loss to the Swiss in the French Open final a few weeks later.

By the time Nadal commenced his 2008 clay season, the aura was growing steadily. That year, he blazed through Monte Carlo and Barcelona before bowing out early in Rome, but then took the title in Hamburg over Federer. He had won three of four clay events en route to Roland Garros, and subsequently the inimitable southpaw crushed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the French Open final, securing the world’s premier clay court crown for the fourth year in a row, taking that title for the first time without the loss of a set. In 2009, Nadal captured 17 matches in a row on his way to Paris, winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Rome before Federer toppled him in the final of Madrid. Nadal had won three of four championships once more leading up to Paris, but then lost his only match ever at Roland Garros to Robin Soderling in the round of 16.

The unwavering Spaniard made amends in 2010 during the spring. He was unbeaten on the dirt, capturing Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid before regaining his French Open crown with a gratifying final round victory over Soderling. In 2011, he came through as usual in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but then crossed paths with an impenetrable Novak Djokovic, who toppled the Spaniard in the finals of both Madrid and Rome. Those two losses were a serious cause of concern for all Nadal boosters, but Djokovic was enjoying the most productive period of his career. He had won 41 consecutive matches to start that 2011 season before Federer upended him in the penultimate round of Roland Garros. Nadal was waiting for the Swiss in the final, and he proceeded to overcome Federer for the fourth time in a French Open final, and the fifth time in all at the clay court shrine.

On to 2012, which was another stellar clay season for Nadal. He secured the crown in Monte Carlo, won Barcelona, fell surprisingly on the blue clay of Madrid to countryman Fernando Verdasco, but then the indefatigable lefty restored order a week later in Rome at the Italian Open. On his path to Paris, Nadal had done his usual high quality work, winning three of four tournaments. He then swept through the field at Roland Garros, defeating Djokovic in the final. A year ago, it all played out similarly. Although Nadal was beaten in the Monte Carlo final by a highly charged Djokovic, he battled back with typical pride and gumption to win Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. That set the stage for his eighth title run at Roland Garros, where Nadal held back Djokovic in a five set semifinal epic before obliterating David Ferrer in the final.

The statistics don’t lie; they tell the essential truth. In those nine outstanding European clay court campaigns, up to and including Roland Garros, Nadal was victorious in 34 of 43 clay court tournaments. In that astonishing span, he lost thrice to Djokovic, twice to Federer, and once each to Soderling, Verdasco, Andreev, and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Not only did he secure his record eight singles championships on the red clay of Roland Garros, but he also took eight crowns at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and seven more in Rome. The man was practically inhuman.

No wonder why there are so many skeptics surrounding Nadal now after his surprisingly inauspicious start to the 2014 clay court springtime circuit. He fell in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo to Ferrer, losing for the first time on clay to his compatriot since 2004. Nadal lost that contest 7-6 (1), 6-4, and it was one of the few times I can recollect that he beat himself. After winning the first point of the critical opening set tie-break, he lost seven points in a row with a rash of unprovoked mistakes and a few inexplicable misjudgments. Before he knew it, Nadal was down two breaks at 5-2 in the second set. Not long after, his setback was completed. In that match, he looked disconsolate, essentially empty, as if he could not find his old emotional energy when he needed it most.

This past week in Barcelona, Nadal suffered an even more jarring defeat at the hands of countryman Nicolas Almagro, a flashy yet uneven player ranked No. 20 in the world. To be sure, Almagro is gifted, and his one-handed topspin backhand is one of the best in the game. Almagro is highly vulnerable off the forehand, and yet he is explosive off that side, capable of releasing flurries of winners when his timing is on. Almagro can play. Nonetheless, Nadal was off and running in this encounter. He played an often dazzling opening set. It was one of the better sets he has put together anywhere in the world this year. Nadal was determined to break down Almagro’s forehand, and he directed as much groundstroke traffic to that wing as possible.

Most impressive of all, Nadal’s backhand was magnificent in that set. He was finding the most acute of angles crosscourt, and threading the needle time and again with that shot. He was taking that shot back up the line periodically just to keep Almagro honest. Meanwhile, the renowned Nadal forehand was sizzling, and he was winning more than his usual share of free points on serve, relying heavily on the extraordinary accuracy of his first delivery down the T in the deuce court, moving it around cleverly in the ad court.

Nadal seemed certain to win that match. Aside from Djokovic, he is the best front runner in the sport of tennis. He had suffered four losses in 2014 before the Almagro setback, but in all of those matches he had dropped the first set. In 2013, Nadal lost only seven times in his seventeen tournaments, bowing only once after securing the opening set. Across his entire career, he has had a propensity to finish off victories almost automatically once he has moved out in front, building intensity and confidence every step of the way, willing himself over the finish line with quiet ferocity. But in his contest with Almagro at Barcelona, despite the fine start, Nadal seemed apprehensive.

When he missed shots he should have made, Nadal was grabbing his head with his hands, advertising his agitation. In the second set, he had numerous opportunities to put himself in the driver’s seat, but somehow those chances kept eluding him. One of the game’s preeminent big point players lacked the conviction to finish off a foe that he had owned throughout their careers. Five times in three different service games during that second set, Nadal arrived at break point, but he could not convert. Almagro erased the first with a service winner in the opening game, and held on from there. Nadal had another in the third game, but became tentative, and Almagro drove an inside out forehand for an outright winner.

The biggest chance for Nadal came in the crucial seventh game, with the score locked at 3-3. He had three more break points there. On the first two, Nadal made errors that could have been prevented; on the third, his return of serve was too short, allowing Almagro to approach the net. Nadal lobbed long off the backhand. Both men held throughout the second set to bring about a tie-break. Once again, Nadal moved tantalizingly close to the win. A second serve ace gave Nadal a 4-3 lead, placing him three points away from a straight set triumph.

But Nadal erred off the forehand on the next two points before rallying to 5-5. He was now two points from taking the match. On that critical eleventh point, Almagro clipped the baseline with a backhand, giving Nadal no chance to respond. Almagro followed with a dazzling inside out forehand winner. He took the tie-break, 7-5, and on they went to a third set. Nadal played a strategically perfect game to break for 3-1 in that final set. He was then serving into the wind with new balls, and was constantly on the defensive. Nadal trailed 0-40, won the next point, and then double faulted into the net. Almagro had broken back for 2-3 and then lost only one point on his serve en route to 3-3.

Nadal was clearly unhappy. He opened the seventh game with another double fault into the net. He did reach 40-30 in that game. His defense was remarkable on that point, but he was pushed back to deuce when Almagro coaxed a forehand error from an overanxious Nadal with a heavily struck crosscourt backhand. After two deuces, Almagro broke again for 4-3, angling his backhand return short crosscourt, daring Nadal to go down the line with his response. That opened the court for Almagro, who rolled a forehand crosscourt into the clear.

And yet, Nadal broke back for 4-4 with a first rate forehand down the line return drawing a mistake from his fellow Spaniard. Serving in the ninth game, Nadal was much too tentative, missing three first serves in a row on his way to a 0-40 deficit. He was broken at love when Almagro caught Nadal in no man’s land. Nadal missed off the forehand. Serving for the match in the tenth game of the third set, Almagro trailed 15-40. Nadal should have broken back for 5-5, but nerves cost him that opportunity. The top seed missed a routine backhand return from the deuce court, and then completely bungled an inside-in forehand off a very short ball. Nadal managed to save one match point but Almagro came through on his second with a forehand winner down the line. Almagro triumphed, eclipsing Nadal 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4.

It was plainly not a match Nadal should have lost, as was the case when he fell against Ferrer the previous week. One of Nadal’s most commendable characteristics is his extraordinary humility. He takes nothing and no one for granted. He refuses to get carried away with his own achievements. He is incredibly self-effacing for a man of his lofty stature. Nadal has lived his entire career by exemplifying what it means to be the ultimate professional. Above all else, Nadal genuinely believes that he is just an ordinary fellow doing extraordinary things. He doesn’t see himself as a superstar or an icon. And that humble attitude has served Nadal exceedingly well over the years, making him work inordinately hard, reinforcing the need to respect each and every one of his peers, reminding him that the next match is the only one that counts.

But perhaps there are times when he ventures too far into the heart of humility. He needs to remember that he became one of the all-time great players overall and irrefutably the best ever on clay not by accident. He is who he is—the toughest competitor the game has ever seen, a singularly rugged character, a champion through and through. These next several weeks could be among the most consequential of Nadal’s entire career. He heads next to Madrid and Rome for Masters 1000 events that he would like to defend, and then goes to Paris in pursuit of a ninth crown at Roland Garros. Prevailing at the French Open will depend to some extent on how he fares in Madrid and Rome. The view here is that Nadal needs to win at least one of those tournaments and reach the final of the other to set himself up for the kind of fortnight he wants in Paris, but that will not be easy in his current muddled state of mind.

Nadal, however, has time to pull himself out of a difficult predicament, to recover his inspiration and unique brand of competitiveness, to fight on with the unflagging spirit that has been his signature trait. His game has not been up to par as of late, but he has the capacity to raise his level of play decidedly in the immediate future, and that is something he knows he can and must do. The year has been trying for Nadal, ever since he felt something wrong in his back during the warm-up of his Australian Open final with Stan Wawrinka. His back woes lingered long after Melbourne. But lately Nadal has suffered much more from a wounded psyche, from a baffling lack of self-conviction, from a strange feeling of inferiority. That label does not fit him well at all. Nadal’s mind is, after all, the single biggest weapon in tennis. He just happens to be off his mental game at the moment.

The view here is that Nadal will play his way out of this crisis, find that inner spark once more, and rediscover who he fundamentally is, where he is going and what he really wants. Know this about Rafael Nadal: he is not going to turn 28 until June 3, and the feeling grows that this supreme individualist will sort everything out, move past his recent disappointments, look down deep into his soul, and figure out precisely what it will take to deal with his current dilemma.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.