Nadal will answer these questions in due course. He is his own toughest critic, and the depth of his disillusionment was strikingly evident after his latest setback in the round of 16 at Barcelona, a tournament he has captured no less than eight times. Nadal was ushered out of that event last week by world No. 30 Fabio Fognini 6-4, 7-6 (6). It was the second time in a row that Nadal had lost to the gifted yet fragile Italian, with both defeats occurring on clay. Moreover, the bruising defeat came on the heels of a good week’s work in Monte Carlo, where Nadal went to the semifinals and played first rate tennis against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic despite coming out on the wrong end of a 6-3, 6-3 score-line.
Many in the tennis cognoscenti believed Nadal would claim the title in Barcelona. Surely Nadal thought he was headed almost entirely in the right direction when he returned to his nation for that tournament last week. If he had gone at least to the final round and lost a hard fought collision with the immensely talented Kei Nishikori, that would not have been the end of the world for the Spaniard. But losing to Fognini in his second match was startling; the result left Nadal on the edge of despondency. He could not understand why he had played so abysmally. He was confounded by his own ineptitude. He was infuriated with himself, or so it seemed.
The first unmistakable sign of Nadal’s vulnerability that afternoon was when he served at 4-5 in the opening set. This was the time when one expected Nadal to make his presence known. But, having rallied from 0-30 to 30-30, Nadal bungled a forehand inside in, sending that shot tamely into the net. Nadal saved a set point but played the next two points ineffectually, allowing Fognini to step in and release a pair of scorching forehand winners. The set belonged to the Italian, and the battle was on.
Nadal raised his intensity immediately. After six deuces, he broke Fognini in the first game of the second set, converting on his seventh break point. An uncommonly composed Fognini struck back for 1-1, but Nadal broke again for 2-1 and built leads of 3-1 and 4-2. He seemed to have found his range off the forehand and was starting to puncture Fognini with depth and angles. But the Spaniard became apprehensive again. At 4-3, he was broken, faltering off the forehand badly at 15-40.
And yet, Nadal broke Fognini in the ninth game with a spectacular forehand down the line winner. He was up a break for the third time in the set, serving in the tenth game to make it one set all. Here his anxiety was painfully evident. Nadal opened with an inside out forehand unforced error, and then netted a forehand inside in. He followed with a third consecutive forehand unforced mistake for 0-40. Nadal saved one break point but then was broken at 15 when he failed to put away an overhead, enabling the swashbuckling Fognini to pass him flamboyantly down the line off the forehand. The set was not over. It was 5-5. Nadal had virtually given away that critical game.
The two men proceeded to a tie-break. Fognini swiftly advanced to 4-1 and then 6-3. Nadal gamely cast aside three match points against him, two of them with winners. But Fognini swung a first serve wide in the deuce court that the Spaniard could not handle. Nadal served at 6-7, down match point for the fourth time. He opened up the court with a standard slice serve wide in the ad court and was set up for an inside out forehand, only to drive that shot long. Nadal’s forehand had let him down flagrantly in the latter stages of the encounter, much to his dismay.
As he told the media afterwards, “My forehand didn’t have enough power or enough speed, and I didn’t have enough control. My forehand has been my biggest virtue. But today my forehand was vulgar. It wasn’t a forehand worthy of my ranking and career. I need my forehand to push my opponents back.”
Nadal was, as usual, brutally candid in his self-assessment, admirably so. He pulled no punches and spoke with clarity, saying, “I played poorly. I didn’t play like I should have. I didn’t play aggressively. I missed more shots than I normally do. I didn’t manage to keep the advantage that I had. Having three breaks in the second set and ending up at 5-5 is a disaster. This is a blow to me but I accept the challenge and the negative day that I had today. There is no other way forward than to accept it or die.”
Clearly, Nadal will not surrender. In my book, he is the greatest competitor in the history of the game, better and even tougher than other standouts like Pancho Gonzales and Jimmy Connors, a singularly rugged individual. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: Nadal’s mind is the single biggest weapon in the sport. That is why he will rediscover his winning ways over time, even if it takes longer than he would like, regardless of how much pain he must endure.
It is entirely possible that he might not be ready to win Roland Garros this year, but that is not necessarily so. It will depend largely on Nadal’s capacity to win some crucial matches in both Madrid and Rome. His confidence is exceedingly low at the moment, but some good wins in the last two pre-French Open events could sharply alter the state of his mind.
It has been an awfully difficult year for Nadal since he secured his ninth Roland Garros crown in June of 2014. He went to the round of 16 at Wimbledon but was blasted off the court by an almost unconscious Nick Kyrgios. The 19-year-old served 37 aces in that stunning, four set triumph. Nadal did not compete again on the ATP World Tour until the end of September. An injury to his right wrist kept the Spaniard out of the U.S. Open and everywhere else in that period. He had already suffered from a back injury during the first half of last year.
Nadal lost to the left-hander Martin Klizan in the quarterfinals of his first tournament back last autumn in Beijing and then was beaten by southpaw Feliciano Lopez in his opening match at Shanghai. He should have pulled out of that tournament with appendicitis. Nadal then played one more tournament after taking medication and lost to 17-year-old Borna Coric. He subsequently closed the curtain on his season and had surgery in early November for the appendix.
His struggles have lingered in 2015. Nadal has played eight tournaments thus far, winning only the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires, an ATP World Tour 250 level event. Every time he has seemed on the verge of a breakthrough, Nadal has digressed. He lost to the left-handed Michael Berrer in his opening round assignment at Doha (after taking the first set 6-1) as he started his 2015 campaign. But then he advanced to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Nadal’s 17 match head to head winning streak against Tomas Berdych came to an end in Melbourne as he fell in straight sets, but the Spaniard seemed poised to take his game to another level.
He then lost to Fognini 1-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the semifinals of Rio de Janeiro on clay but Nadal recouped to win his next tournament in Buenos Aires. Shifting to hard courts, he played an encouraging match against Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells but lost 4-6, 7-6 (10), 7-5 despite having three match points. Nadal’s verve and fighting spirit in that contest were reminiscent of his salad days. He went to Miami feeling invigorated, but lost perplexingly in the round of 32 to Fernando Verdasco.
Next, of course, was Monte Carlo—back out on the clay. Nadal ousted John Isner and David Ferrer in hard fought, three set showdowns, but perhaps took too much out of himself to be at full force against Djokovic in the penultimate round. Yet he was still impressive in many ways as both men produced breathtaking rallies and displayed athleticism and shotmaking skills of the highest order. Nadal felt he was coming around comprehensively, and his biggest boosters hoped he would translate his markedly improved form and mindset into an uplifting week in Barcelona. But he was struck down by Fognini, and Nadal knew he could not justify that loss, especially on his favorite surface.
He said afterwards, “This is a hard day for me. I felt I was playing better. I will keep working. I am convinced this situation of ups and downs I have had since returning from injuries sooner or later will come to an end.”
So what does it all mean? Is he really at a crossroads? He surely is, but Nadal has battled back with gusto many times during his career, and he will do so again. Losing can become as habitual as winning, and Nadal has captured only one of his thirteen tournaments since the 2014 French Open. That pattern of disappointment has been weighing heavily on his mind. Has Nadal moved permanently past the heart of his prime as the naysayers would suggest? Perhaps that is so, but it is all relative. He will never again be the supreme Nadal who controlled the game so persuasively in 2008, 2010 and 2013. In 2008, he won two majors and an Olympic gold medal. Two years later, he secured the last three majors of the season. And in 2013, he won ten tournaments, took two majors, and finished his third year as the sport’s preeminent player.
Nadal’s greatness has not evaporated. He will recover his knack for playing his best brand of tennis when it matters the most. I am convinced he has not won his last major; he will add at least one or two to his collection, and possibly three. But the fact remains that it would be a tall order for Nadal to mend his wounded psyche soon enough to prevail at the upcoming French Open. It will be one of the foremost challenges of his career to make it safely through seven matches across the Roland Garros fortnight in late May and early June. He could be seeded fifth or lower, and face a more daunting draw than usual. He might have to confront Djokovic as early as the quarterfinals. Accounting for some of the better clay court practitioners this year will not be as automatic as it has been for so many years.
Nevertheless, Nadal has won Roland Garros nine of the ten times he has played it. He has triumphed on that majestic stage for five consecutive years. Beating him in the best of five sets on the dirt is perhaps the tallest task in tennis. Only a madly inspired Robin Soderling (in 2009) has realized that feat. Despite all of his recent woes, Nadal has always found a way to rule at Roland Garros. One month in advance of the French Open, Djokovic is the man to beat, but only a fool would dismiss Nadal’s chances.
Even if he does not come through in Paris, this much is certain: Rafael Nadal will eventually repair the damage that has been done to his psyche. He will turn 29 during the French Open, and the Spaniard fully comprehends that time is of the essence. Sooner or later, he will make amends.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.