Rafa vs the Rest
Rafael Nadal is heading back to the terrain on which he is most comfortable, but with a shakier foundation than he has had in a decade. A scan of his recent rankings tell the story in one bare fact: the once unstoppable Nadal is now ranked seventh in the world.
Nadal has long been at his best in the spring European clay court swing, dominating from Monte Carlo in April to the French Open in June. But despite winning his ninth French Open title, Nadal’s performance in that stretch last year was the second-worst of his career since his first French Open title in 2005, earning 3,870 ranking points.
With time missed due to various injuries and illnesses, as well as a multitude of stunning losses to players against whom he would normally dominate, Nadal sputtered, and earned only 1,385 ranking points in the nine-month stretch after the 2014 French Open. That total is tied for just 22nd in the ATP over the time <g data-gr-id="75">period,</g> and gives Nadal little cushion as he heads back onto the clay. After a quarter-final loss at Indian Wells and a third-round loss in Miami, Nadal has fallen to No 5 in this week’s ATP rankings, his worst in two years, having been passed by Andy Murray and supplanted in the top four by Kei Nishikori. Perhaps more tellingly, he is less than 200 points ahead of No6 Milos Raonic; Nadal has not been ranked outside the top-five since before winning his first French Open title, almost 10 years ago.
Nadal, rarely enamored with his own greatness even at the height of his career, has acknowledged his recent slide bluntly. At Indian Wells in early March, then-third-ranked Rafael Nadal was asked what it meant that he, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Murray once again occupied the top-four spots in the ATP rankings.
“I’m not gonna be in the top four soon,” he replied, smiling. “No worries. That’s going to change. I defend a lot of points until Roland Garros, so it’s a big chance that I will be out of that top four. But I hope to be back.”
But as relaxed as he’s been about his slide in the abstract, Nadal on-court has been uncharacteristically tense and unsteady this year. As he feels his body and game regaining strength, his mental toughness has lagged behind.
Clay would seem to be the obvious elixir for what ails Nadal, having been the undisputed king of the surface for a decade now. But with Djokovic having swept the three biggest tournaments of the year so far, and more intent than ever to capture an elusive first French Open title – the Serb is actually favourite with the bookies this year – he may find this his most challenging clay swing yet. But Nadal’s struggles may also make life more difficult for Djokovic; if he is not ranked inside the top-four, Nadal could face Djokovic at the French Open as early as the quarter-finals (Djokovic is 0-6 against Nadal at the tournament). Having said that, Nadal and Djokovic are separated by less than a year in <g data-gr-id="66">age,</g> but appear now as players at starkly different stages of their careers.
Nadal, 28, has been winning major titles for nearly a decade, at least one a year. He won his first as an 18-year-old superhuman force of torque and muscle never seen before in the sport, and the years have put inevitable wear and tear on a powerful engine. It was always difficult to imagine Nadal could sustain himself with such a high octane for so long.
Djokovic, 27, started out in tennis all too mortal, felled by asthma and other frailties which undercut his chances of reaching the sport’s pantheon. But time has only made him stronger, vulcanizing his rubber physique and establishing him as the undisputed No 1 in the world.
Both men have now spent exactly 141 weeks at the top spot in the rankings, but it’s easy to believe now that Nadal’s count may never increase while Djokovic might just be getting started. Nadal’s confidence will improve as his results do, but it’s hard to see him matching the year-round, uninterrupted excellence of his younger, healthier days in order to ascend over the peaking Serb.
Having said that, facing Nadal on clay is still an awesome proposition. “Hopefully the clay helps,” said Nadal. “It’s obvious that if I am able to win my matches on clay, to feel my game confident there, then the doubts are less.”
Considering the absurdity of the double-digit French Open haul he is hoping to achieve this year, he has kept the stakes at this moment of his career firmly in perspective.
“I don’t have anything to lose,” he said. “At this point of my career I won enough things to say I don’t need to win more.
“But I want to do it. I want to keep competing well. I want to keep having the feeling that I can be competing for every tournament I gonna play, and I have the motivation to do it. Obviously clay is [the] surface that I had some success on, and I hope to be ready for it again.”
Birth Date: 3 JUNE 1986
Birth Place: MANACOR, MALLORCA, SPAIN
Residence: MANACOR, MALLORCA, SPAIN
Height: 1.85 METERS (6 FT. 1 IN.)
Weight: 85.5 KILOS (188 LBS.)
Plays: LEFT HANDED
Singles Ranking: 7
Doubles Ranking: 157