By Lindsay Gibbs
It's the question on everyone's mind this time of year: Will Rafael Nadal win the French Open again? Usually, there's not much of a discussion to have. Of course he will. After all, he's won eight of the last nine French Open titles and is the best clay-court player of all time.
However, over the past two months this question has transitioned from rhetorical to debatable. Since the start of the European clay swing in April, Nadal has entered four tournaments. He's only won one of them. He lost in two quarterfinals and one final, and won one title via a retirement. This is the first time in his career he's had three losses in the pre-French Open European clay swing, and the first time he's entering Roland Garros with only one warm-up title. Nadal's worst clay season is still better than everyone else's best, but holes have certainly been poked in his cloak of invincibility.
That's the problem with setting the bar astonishingly high -- there's nowhere to hide when you eventually, inevitably and understandably fall short.
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Over the past decade, no athlete has dominated his or he sport the way that Rafael Nadal has dominated clay-court tennis.
It all began nine years ago, when an 18-year-old Spaniard with messy hair, a neon green sleeveless shirt and pirate pants walked onto the dirt of Roland Garros for the first time. He was a rookie at the tournament due to injuries the previous two years that had forced him to withdraw, but Nadal was far from an unknown. The teenager had broken through to the top of the game that clay season, with three straight titles at clay-court events in the lead-up to the French Open. He was the No. 5 seed, and the buzz was already nearing a fever pitch.
That year, Nadal steamrolled through his draw. On his 19th birthday he upset No. 1 Roger Federer in the semifinals, then took out Mariano Puerta in the final. He was unlike anything tennis had ever seen, a brash but humble fighter who was ferocious on the court but wistful off of it. He didn't have the elegance of Federer, the arrogance of Sampras, or the feistiness of Agassi, but he was undoubtedly a star.
New York Times writer Christopher Clarey profiled the Spaniard after his first major title.
Speaking softly to his parents, he wore a dark suit and a conservative tie. He bore little resemblance to the leaping, lunging, fist-clenching 19-year-old in the bandanna and the white clam-digger pants and the fluorescent green sleeveless shirt who had won the French Open tennis tournament in such eye-catching fashion a few hours before.
'I hope all this won't change me,' he said, speaking in Spanish. 'I would like to stay the same as I've always been. I hope that I will pull it off, and I believe I will be able to pull it off. I want to continue being a 19-year-old youngster and play my tennis.'
To Nadal's credit, the success didn't change him, at least not overnight. The youngster playing his tennis stayed almost painfully humble and fought his heart out for every point on his way to becoming the undisputed King of Clay.
Nadal's dominance on clay courts cannot be overstated; the facts themselves are hyperbole enough. He is 329-24 in his career on the surface, a winning percentage of 92.8 percent. He has 44 clay-court titles, meaning he has 20 more titles than losses on the surface. He has eight Monte Carlo titles, eight Barcelona titles and seven Rome titles. In fact, it would be much quicker to make a list of European clay-court titles that Nadal hasn't won over the last decade than vice-versa.
At the French Open alone, he's 59-1 with eight titles and $11,927,716 in prize money. That's more money than 10 members of the current Top 20 have made in their entire careers
Roland Garros is his home away from home, the indestructible foundation on which one of the best tennis careers of all time was built. But still, somehow, things feel shaky this year.
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"I doubt about myself," Nadal said in an interview with Time Magazine earlier this year. "I think the doubts are good in life. The people who don't have doubts I think only two things: arrogance or not intelligence."
Nadal has always been almost modest to a fault. He doesn't like to admit that he's the favorite. He likes to publicly break down his game. He offers effusive, over-the-top praise to his opponents. He takes nothing for granted. Throughout his career, he has worn self-doubt like a badge of honor, using it as a weapon against the media, the competition and himself. By doubting, he protected himself from believing his own hype and letting his guard down.
But this year, the doubt has taken a different form. It feels less like a tactic, and more like an obstacle.
It began in January of this year down in Melbourne, Australia. Nadal was coming off of one of the best stretches of his career, when he won 11 titles (including two majors) and took back the No. 1 ranking following a seven-month layoff in 2012 for a recurring knee injury. He had fought his way to the Australian Open final where he was a heavy favorite against Stanislas Wawrinka.
However, misfortune struck during that match. Wawrinka was on fire, playing the best tennis of his life in his first major final, but Nadal was becoming progressively more hampered by a back injury as the games went by. The Spaniard was thoroughly outplayed in the first set, and then it became obvious that his back was seizing up. Unable to put up his usual fight, Nadal offered little resistance as Wawrinka won 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, He remained out there until Wawrinka won match point, but he was a shell of his usual self.
He talked with the press at the BNP Paribas Open in March about how difficult that final was for him psychologically:
'It's tough to be there [against Wawrinka] for one hour and 30 minutes knowing you will not win,' Nadal explained. 'You will not win? That's not the important thing. The worst thing is that you will not compete. When you're losing and competing, that is part of the game. For me, that loss was much harder than in 2012 after six hours. I had that match in the fifth, I fought for six hours, so [I] should be more [disappointed about] that one. [But] this one was much more disappointing because I did everything right to be there and compete for the final and I couldn't.'
Nadal's struggling was supposed to come to an end once the European clay season began. However, it turned out that the answer to his woes wasn't as simple as a surface switch. Nadal was blown out in the quarterfinals of the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters by David Ferrer, and then he lost in a third set to Nicolas Almagro in the Barcelona Open.
"After what happened in Australia [it's been a] little bit harder for me to find again the intensity, the confidence, the inside power that always I have," he told reporters after his loss in Monte Carlo.
Next, Nadal made the final of the Mutua Madrid Open, but quickly got down a set and a break to an on-fire Kei Nishikori. That first set and a half highlighted all of Nadal's newfound vulnerabilities on clay. He stayed too far back, was a step slow, had multiple inexcusable breakdowns on his forehand and lost confidence in his serve at all the wrong times. With aggression, precision and power, Nishikori was able to turn the bully into the victim.
Eventually, however, Nishikori's back gave out, Nadal won the second set and Nishikori retired to give Nadal the crown. But it was far from convincing. Even Nadal's coach Uncle Toni said that Rafa didn't deserve the title.
The following week at the Rome Masters, Nadal still looked uneasy on his way to the final, losing sets in emphatic fashion to Gilles Simon, Mikhail Youzhny and Andy Murray. Djokovic got the best of him in the final, setting all of the storylines for the French Open into full flight.
No longer a youngster, 27-year-old Nadal has to figure out how to think positively and play his tennis again if he wants to continue to rule Roland Garros. Success doesn't have to change a person, but uncertainty is hard to overcome.
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Over the past nine years, only three men have ever really contended for the French Open title: Nadal, Federer and Djokovic.
In 2009, Nadal suffered his lone loss at Roland Garros when he was shockingly upset by Robin Soderling in the fourth round. That year, Federer was able to take advantage by winning the trophy and completing his Career Slam.
In 2011, Djokovic had taken out Nadal in back-to-back Masters 1000 finals heading into the French, and many considered him the favorite. However, Federer upset Djokovic in the semifinals and Nadal continued his reign.
This year, Djokovic has a chance to not only win his first French Open title, but to take the No. 1 ranking back from Nadal over the next fortnight. While Nadal and Federer's rivalry might have launched an era of unprecedented greatness and consistency, Nadal and Djokovic currently have the definitive rivalry in the men's game. Nadal leads the head-to-head 22-19, but Djokovic has won their last four meetings.
Earlier this year, a reporter asked Nadal if he was glad that Djokovic existed. "No," he said with a smile. "I like challenges, but I am not stupid."
Djokovic isn't the only player that Nadal has to worry about this year, though. It's been a strange season so far, and there's a glimmer of hope for the field. Nadal has his worries and his lingering injuries. Djokovic has his wrist. Federer, Murray and Wawrinka are all wild cards. It's been a year of change on the ATP. Wawrinka has won a major, the next generation of players has finally found their legs and none of the top guys have played their best. Slowly but surely, the status quo that has carried the tour over the past eight years is beginning to dissolve.
That doesn't mean the era is over yet, though. That 18-year-old who took over Paris nine years ago can still play some pretty phenomenal tennis. He has less hair, but it's still messy. He has more commercial clothing, but it's still bright. And, in a best-of-five format on clay, he's still the toughest out in tennis.
Make no mistake about it, Nadal can still win a ninth French Open title. It's just that this year, everyone has a few more doubts than usual.
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