How Rafael Nadal's Rome title was the turning point of his 2019 season
The ‘King of Clay’ Rafael Nadal has won two Grand Slam titles (French Open and US Open) and two Masters 1000 titles (Rome and Montreal) so far in 2019. However, life wasn’t nearly so good for the Spaniard at the start of the year.
The World No. 2, making a comeback at the Australian Open after an injury layoff, appeared to be in prime form in the first Slam of the year before he met his long-time nemesis Novak Djokovic in the final. Nadal was blown away by the relentless Serb, and suffered the first ever straight sets Slam final loss of his career.
And that result triggered a series of painful losses for the Spaniard.
Following the humbling loss in the final at Melbourne, the tournament in Acapulco was Nadal’s second assignment of this year. At the Mexican Open, the Spaniard crumbled against Nick Kyrgios in the round of 16 despite holding as many as three match points.
Recovering from his loss at Acapulco, Nadal made a strong statement in the early rounds of the Indian Wells Masters. However, after a hard-fought contest against Karen Khachanov in the quarterfinal, Nadal’s knee injury resurfaced and forced him to pull out of the mouth-watering semi-final clash against his old rival Roger Federer.
That said, many thought this was a blessing in disguise for the Spaniard as it offered him more time to recover before unleashing himself on his favourite surface, the red dirt.
The years 2017 and 2018 had followed similar patterns as Nadal ended up winning four out of five tournaments on clay - including the French Open - in both of those years. Before the start of the clay season this year too, it seemed impossible for Nadal to be denied.
But tennis is a funny sport, and can give you a humbling experience no matter what your status.
The first Masters 1000 event on clay was a tournament which Nadal had made his own by winning it 11 times. But in the semi-final at Monte Carlo, Nadal suffered an ignominious straight-sets defeat at the hands of Fabio Fognini.
Nadal’s defeat at the principality of Monaco was shocking for the tennis fraternity. But what was even more shocking was that the Spaniard succumbed in the subsequent weeks at Barcelona and Madrid too, yet again in the semi-finals.
With his semi-final exit at the Barcelona Open against Dominic Thiem, 2019 marked the first instance since 2004 where Nadal entered the month of May without holding a single title in the year.
During those first four weeks on clay, Nadal appeared to be circumspect and vulnerable with his shot-making and movement. It was hardly surprising that several tennis experts and fans started to raise questions over his chances of defending the French Open.
But champions have a unique ability to come back harder each time they are pushed into a corner. Their resilience in the face of adversity is what defines them as individuals.
Following his loss to Stefanos Tsitsipas in Madrid, Nadal desperately hoped for a turnaround. And that change of fortunes did happen at the Rome Masters 1000 in the most sensational way anyone could imagine.
Nadal, with his record, pride and title on the line, played like a cornered tiger in Rome. He unleashed himself like a tracer bullet and brought home his first title of the year, and his 9th overall at the Italian capital.
The Spaniard’s dominance throughout the week at Rome can be understood by the fact that he served four bagel sets to his opponents in just five matches, including the one he served to Djokovic in the final.
Nadal's victory at Rome was undoubtedly the turning point as far as his 2019 season is concerned. The version of Nadal that was on the court before the Rome Masters was a complete opposite of the one that we have seen since.
Rome was a morale-boosting, reassuring win for the Spaniard and acted like a catalyst for his subsequent success. While he looked circumspect, nervy and jaded before Rome, he was at his vintage best after it, oozing with confidence and venom.
Since the Rome Masters, Nadal has just lost one match - the defeat against Federer in the semifinal at Wimbledon. He has won three titles (French Open, Canada Masters 1000 and US Open) in this period.
It's not just about the numbers though; the way in which he has expressed himself on the court has also been different since Rome. Even at Wimbledon, before he lost to Federer, he displayed some of his best grasscourt tennis in recent years to storm his way past his first five opponents.
With his 4th crown at the US Open, Nadal is now just one short of Federer’s tally of 20 Grand Slam titles. In all likelihood, the Spaniard will end his career holding the highest number of singles Majors in the history of men’s tennis - something that looked like a pipe dream at the start of 2019.