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Rafael Nadal's 2019 clay season: A review

ANALYST
Feature
365   //    11 Jun 2019, 14:28 IST

Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal

In life, change is inevitable, they say. However, if you follow tennis and a certain Grand Slam called Roland Garros, the results just don’t change.

Rafael Nadal yet again breezed past his challenger Dominic Thiem 6-3, 5-7, 6-1, 6-1 in 3 hours and 1 minute to win an unprecedented 12th French Open title at Paris. Nadal also recorded the 18th Major of his career in the process, and for the first time ever is now just two short of Roger Federer’s record tally of 20 Grand Slam titles.

The Spaniard was dominant, ruthless and relentless yet again on Court Philippe Chatrier, adding a new chapter to his unconquerable legacy on the red dirt. However, that wasn't the case throughout the 2019 clay season.

At the start of this year's clay swing, Nadal appeared to be circumspect about his game and vulnerable to consistent hitters. He suffered a trio of defeats in his first three clay tournaments of the year, and things didn't seem to be headed the right way. That makes his glorious 12th title triumph in Paris even more impressive; it is a testimony to his attitude, will power and hunger to succeed no matter what the circumstances.

On that note, let’s take a closer look at the Spaniard’s performances in this year’s clay season.

Triple semi-final losses at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid

A dejected looking Rafael Nadal
A dejected looking Rafael Nadal

At Monte Carlo, the 3-time defending champion and 11-time winner escaped a scare against Argentina’s Guido Pella in the quarter-finals to set up a semi-final clash against the ever-unpredictable Italian Fabio Fognini. And in that match, Nadal, who won the title in 2018 without dropping even a single set, was stunned by Fognini with a 4-6, 2-6 defeat.

After his lackluster performance against Fognini, Nadal himself labelled his defeat as one of his worst on clay in 14 years. The alarm bells had begun to ring in the Nadal camp.

If it was Fognini who halted Nadal’s journey at Monaco, it was Thiem who knocked the Spaniard out of the Barcelona Open, again in the semi-finals. In the process, the Austrian notched up his fourth win over the ‘King of Clay’ in as many years.

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Following the debacles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal entered the month of May without a single title in the year for the first time since 2004.

Nadal losing in two back-to-back tournaments on clay was something unheard of, and it was imperative for the Spaniard to arrest his slide in his home tournament at Madrid. However, the story did not change at Madrid either as Nadal slumped to his third consecutive semi-final defeat, this time against the resilient Stefanos Tsitsipas.

With Nadal having failed to win a single title on clay up to that point, tennis experts started to raise concerns and doubts about his chances of defending his most prized title, the French Open.

Triumph at Rome

Rafael Nadal ended his title drought in 2019 with his resounding victory at Rome
Rafael Nadal ended his title drought in 2019 with his resounding victory at Rome

One of the most significant attributes of champions which separates them from everybody else is their uncanny ability to rise to the occasion when it matters the most.

After three semi-final defeats, with his back against the wall, Nadal performed like a cornered tiger at Rome and pounced on his opponents. He served a bagel set to four of his five opponents, including Novak Djokovic in the final, en route his 9th triumph at the Italian capital.

His victorious campaign was resounding enough to make all his fellow players and fans believe that the ‘King of Clay’ was back big time. As a result, he once again started as the favorite to win Roland Garros.

La Duodecima at Roland Garros

2019 French Open Champion - Rafael Nadal
2019 French Open Champion - Rafael Nadal

The Spaniard had reserved the best for the last.

Court Philippe Chatrier is far more than just a court for Nadal; he shares a special emotional bond with it, which is like his second home. Nadal might falter everywhere else in the world, but certainly not at Roland Garros.

The red dirt of Paris dances to the tunes of the Spaniard’s racket, and year after year bestows its favorite son with the biggest prize in the world.

The hesitation and vulnerability that surrounded Nadal’s game at the start of the clay season was now replaced by supreme confidence, aggression and dominance coming into the French Open. The way he subdued Kei Nishikori, Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem at the business end of the tournament reinforced just how dominant he is in Paris.

Nadal's unparalleled record at the French Open is truly jaw-dropping, and makes us wonder whether the Spaniard is an extraterrestrial player when it comes playing on clay.

The Roland Garros win concluded what can best be described as a tough clay season for Nadal. No matter what may have happened at the start of the season, the Spaniard continues his love affair with Court Philippe Chatrier, mesmerizing us with the sheer magic of his tennis.

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