What’s the Story?
Going into the Rome Masters, many were eyebrows raised over Nadal’s season up to that point. Losing the Australian Open final to Novak Djokovic was one thing. Pulling out of Indian Wells on the eve of a semifinal clash against Roger Federer was another.
However, as has been so typical of Nadal’s career, the clay court season always seems to compensate his shortcomings on grass and hard courts. Up until mid-May however, this wasn’t the case. Nadal lost in Monte Carlo to an inspired Fabio Fognini, and to NextGen stars Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas in Barcelona and Madrid, respectively.
How under-par was Nadal’s form in 2019? It had been the longest he’d gone without a title since 2004. Which, to put into context, was when Nadal was 17.
Into his 30s now, however, questions of his physical state have come into question. Being consistently plagued with injuries in recent seasons, many doubt that he could play for as long as Federer has.
This year, Nadal had already pulled out of Indian Wells and subsequently missed the Miami Open with injury. His uncharacteristic defeats on clay added more fuel to the fire that his decline may be starting.
As mentioned, Nadal’s success on clay has often compensated for his lesser results on grass and hard court. And if he can no longer dominate clay, then his decline may come fast and furious.
Nevertheless, Nadal was showing vintage form in the earlier stages of the Rome Masters, swatting away his opponents with apparent ease. He even exacted revenge on Tsitsipas, who had defeated him in Madrid.
However, Novak Djokovic was just as dominant, and for Nadal to turn around his season he would have to overcome the Serb. Overcome him is exactly what he did, defeating the World #1 in three sets.
Is Nadal now the favourite?
That is the million dollar question. It would seem fair to say that he is based on this victory over Djokovic alone. However, one mustn’t forget his string of defeats on the red dirt this season.
His form in Rome shows that he may be peaking at the right time. Nevertheless, it seems perhaps hasty to put him as favourite. The clay court season has shown that the French Open is quite, well, open.
Nadal may have won Rome, but he has shown a vulnerability on clay. Not only that, the NextGen have also shown that their threat is growing continually.
The draw will be hugely important for both players, and until then it’s hard to call a favourite. Nadal’s win has slimmed Djokovic’s chances a bit though, but not totally.
Furthermore, either player could face Federer in the semis, and if he’s at his best he could beat either of them. Nadal will hope to miss “the Maestro” as he hasn’t beaten him in their last five meetings.
Although none of these encounters have occurred on clay, with Federer’s improved backhand it would be an interesting match.
For now, it seems fair to keep Djokovic as favorite to win. However, once the draw is released this conversation should be reassessed.
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