Barcelona Open 2019: Rafael Nadal's season of woes continues
In an era of uncertainty and unpredictability, Nadal’s claycourt dominance over the years has been the only constant - not just in tennis, but in the sporting world at large. Now, his unceremonious back-to-back semifinal losses on the red dirt at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, two tournaments where he has enjoyed rich success, have raised serious concerns over his current claycourt campaign and also the remainder of the season that follows the claycourt swing.
These losses have been unexpected, yes. But a closer look at Nadal’s 2019 season, where he has been deprived of any titles so far, reveals that the signs were there all along.
The Australian Open debacle
Nadal made a storming comeback from injury at the start of the year at the Australian Open as he registered six straight sets wins en route to his summit clash against Novak Djokovic.
In a bid to improve his efficiency and to keep his matches shorter so as to reduce the chances of injury, Nadal and his team of coaches came up with a remodeled serve. That worked wonders for the Spaniard throughout the Australian Open before he met the Serb in the final.
Whether it was because of Djokovic’s presence at the other side of the net or his own mental demons against an opponent who has constantly troubled him throughout his career, the wheels came off for Nadal. He slumped to his first ever straight sets defeat in the final of any Grand Slam event, and it was back to the drawing board.
To say that it was not Nadal’s day in the final at Rod Laver Arena would be a huge understatement. To be honest it was a complete no-show by him. And maybe that was the beginning of Nadal’s troubles.
Shock exit at the Mexican Open and injury concerns at Indian Wells
In his Acapulco Round of 16 match against the talented yet unpredictable Australian Nick Kyrgios, Nadal squandered three match points before bowing out. While nothing can be taken away from the Australian’s sensational performance to upset Nadal, the No. 1 seed wasn’t expected to face such an early exit.
At the Indian Wells Masters, when it appeared that the Spaniard was finally finding his feet and rhythm following his debacles at Acapulco and Melbourne, the knee injury that has plagued him throughout his career came up again. After his hard-fought victory against Karen Khachanov in the quarter-finals, Nadal was forced to retire from the tournament - just ahead of his semi-final clash against arch-rival Roger Federer.
With his retirement at Indian Wells and subsequent pulling out of the Miami Open, we were once again reminded that Nadal's tryst with injuries has now become an integral, unavoidable and painful part of his career.
Two defeats in as many tournaments on clay
Alongside Roland Garros, the two other tournaments in which Nadal has enjoyed a superhuman level of success are Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He has won 11 titles at each of these three tournaments; when he enters the draw, it is hard to predict anyone but him ending as the victor.
But Nadal’s inability to hold his serve consistently through his defeats at the two events this year is a big problem. At Monaco in particular, he had a hard time holding his serve throughout his quarterfinal and semifinal clashes against Guido Pella and Fabio Fognini respectively. He was broken far too easily and too often, just narrowly escaping the embarrassment of being served a bagel by Fognini.
Up next is the Madrid Open, the least successful tournament on clay for Nadal. And with his rivals Federer and Djokovic confirmed to play in the Spanish capital, the competition is expected to get tougher as we dive deeper into the clay season.
One quality that goes into the making of a champion is his/her willingness to always be defined by the present, and not just by past achievements and glory. Nadal has always done that very well, and that is exactly how he should the upcoming tournaments on clay.
Several times in the past the Spaniard has defied the odds and his ageing, injury-prone body to rise above pain and defeat. Can the ‘gladiator’ rise and shine again from these dark clouds of uncertainty, or will he relinquish his supreme and undisputed dominance on clay?
We will have our answer by the end of the clay season.