Why Not Rafael Nadal at the French Open?

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This is part of a preview series for the 2015 French Open. For two potential dark horse candidates, see this article on Milos Raonic and this on Andy Murray.

The march through the European clay court season winds down as the best tennis players in the world make their final preparations in search of French Open glory. The fortunes of Rafael Nadal, King of Clay, has been the main narrative holding the viewing public’s attention these past few weeks, ahead of his quest for a record 10th title in Paris. In years past, logic held that the fate of the Coupe des Mousquetaires would be determined on the strings of Nadal’s racquet. Yet, for the second successive year, we enter tennis’ second major with questions surrounding his readiness to thwart all challengers. Yet history tells us his chances are just as good as anybody else’s.

This is not to say that there aren’t valid reasons for concern. With every passing tournament, his fans become increasingly concerned and the headlines more sensational. Nadal has won 9 of the last 10 French Opens, but his stranglehold on the trophy cannot last forever, nor can he stay at the top of men’s tennis in perpetuity.

Nobody stays at the top forever.

Tennis pundits have long speculated about the long-term toll Nadal’s grueling style of play would take on his body; would he be able to compete at as high–and as long–a level as someone like Federer, whose game is markedly less physical? Missing large swaths of a tennis season due to injury, like Nadal did in 2014, elicits greater concern for a player a stone’s throw from 30 than it does someone like Nick Kyrgios. Has he already reached the top of the proverbial hill? The good news for the Mallorcan is he seems to be fully healthy; his losses don’t appear to be due to nagging physical ailments. The tragic irony for Nadal is that his once-vaunted mental prowess appears to be his biggest obstacle these days.

One needs only listen to Nadal in his press conferences after unexpected losses to hear traces of doubt and trepidation. Nadal has always opted for humility at every turn, but his recent reflections have been eye opening, even for his own self-effacing standards. Nadal talks often about the need to “feel good” about his game, presumably suffering from a lack of confidence. The difference for today’s Nadal is that it’s taking increasingly long for him to find that happy place on court.

Nadal’s chances in Paris are also handicapped by the rising circumstances of other players. Novak Djokovic has made no secret of his desire to complete a career Grand Slam, a mission stymied by Nadal on three occasions. His clear-cut status as the #1 player in the world, and growing invincibility, make his trajectory seem unassailable this time around. We may have already entered the “Djokovic era.” Even if a renewed Nadal were to play this Djokovic on Philippe Chatrier in June, would the Spaniard’s best be good enough once more?

Complicating matters for Nadal is that his ranking currently sits at #7, the lowest it has been in over a decade. Failing to win in Rome last week guaranteed his seeding outside the top 4 and creates the possibility of playing Djokovic a round earlier in the quarterfinals. Still, all is not lost for Nadal. In Madrid, he demonstrated glimpses of his best form when he handled Tomas Berdych with aplomb in the semifinals. Beating Murray in the final might have provided that elusive moment of clarity, something to pinpoint as the exact moment when he proved his readiness for Paris. Instead, Nadal’s listless display against Murray showed he is not quite ready yet. Losing to Stan Wawrinka in the Rome quarterfinals–in straight sets–did nothing to assuage those fears.

The uncertainty is the most unsettling part of watching this version of Nadal. If his 2014 clay season taught us anything, it is that patience is required while he sorts himself out. Although Nadal won Madrid last year,  Nishikori was well on his way to victory before injury altered the course of that final. The following week in Rome, Djokovic beat Nadal in a 3-set final, and seemed ready to finally outstrip his clay rival on the surface’s biggest stage. Yet Nadal managed to find a way to get the good feeling back in his racquet before the finish line. He is no longer the player who will dominate the clay season from start to finish–that is the uncomfortable truth now for Nadal fans. But that does not spell doom for his prospects at Roland Garros; 2014 showed us that much.

Despite all the apocalyptic coverage that snowballed with each successive loss–an unheard of 5 to date on clay this year–Nadal still has the advantage of playing best-of-five sets at the French. Moreover, Nadal himself has attested to the distinct characteristics of Philippe Chatrier that make that centre court his most favoured stage: a higher bouncing ball more receptive to his violent spins and more square footage for him to dig in on and defend. If there is any court that could help Nadal reignite the intangibles in his game, it is centre court at Roland Garros.

Novak Djokovic has been the player most likely to unseat Nadal for many years now. When Nadal looked most vulnerable last year, it was largely because Djokovic looked so ready to win.

And yet, he couldn’t.

Tennis scribes seem to have lost sight of Nadal’s psychological hold on Djokovic at the French; centre court at Roland Garros is the Serb’s final frontier in his quest for tennis supremacy, and Nadal has blocked him at every turn. When Djokovic entered last year’s final with the momentum, his top form eluded him in a 4-set final. After having come so close to beating Nadal the year before, there was an air of mental exhaustion while attempting to climb those last few rungs. Nadal, at his best on the Roland Garros dirt, is men’s tennis’ stiffest test.

Prior to Munich this year, Andy Murray had never won a clay court tournament. He has now won two, and looks a player transformed–a vast improvement on his least successful surface. Still, he has never advanced to a French final and winning should be a bigger ask of him than Nadal. The other hyped contender, Kei Nishikori, is still in search of a maiden Slam title, has never been past the fourth round in Paris, and has only three Slam quarterfinals under his belt. There are questions to be asked of everybody, not just Nadal.

With so much uncertainty, and the field of legitimate contenders widening, history is the most reliable predictive tool. Nadal’s success at the French Open has been one of the few certainties in men’s tennis during the era of the “Big Four.” Despite not having passed the eye test so far, Nadal still has numerous hours of practice and the early rounds of Roland Garros to feel good about himself again. So as pundits and fans consider who has the best shot at capturing glory in Paris, there seems to be just as good a case to be made for Nadal as any of the other probable favourites.

Until he loses on Philippe Chatrier, the question remains: why not Rafael Nadal at the French Open?

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