Stop the presses! Breaking tennis news!
Rafael Nadal has shown signs of being (gasp!) human during this clay-court season, not quite invincible on the dirt he so dominated for the better part of the past decade. When the French Open begins Sunday, there is a chance — albeit a small one — that someone else will win the title he has taken home eight of the past nine years.
Though the top-ranked Spaniard boasts a 59-1 record at Roland Garros, he lost three clay-court matches in the past month, which hadn’t happened since 2005. From then until this spring, Nadal was 295-11 on clay. This spring: 11-3.
His losses to countrymen David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro were noteworthy because he did not look to be on top of his game and made more errors than usual. He hadn’t dropped a set at Barcelona since 2008, and he did against Almagro. Ferrer’s win was his first on clay against Nadal since 2004. Nadal also squandered a lead against Novak Djokovic last Sunday in the Rome final.
He won only one tournament during the European clay-court season, the Madrid Open, and it was because Kei Nishikori retired in the third set with a back injury. Most players would be thrilled to win one clay title. But for Nadal, a lone trophy this time of year is a sign of a slump. He usually wins three clay titles leading into the French Open.
Another sign of vulnerability: He was stretched to three sets by Andy Murray, Mikhail Youzhny and Gilles Simon in recent weeks.
Still, he remains at the very least a co-favorite with Djokovic to win the French. And odds are he will be playing in the final Sunday.
Asked why he hasn’t been as dominant this spring, ESPN commentators Patrick McEnroe and Chris Evert offered their theories. McEnroe said Nadal was due for a bit of a letdown after his phenomenal 2013. Evert said flattening his stroke for hard courts and grass might have something to do with it.
Said McEnroe: “I think he put so much energy into what he did last year, physical, maybe more importantly mental energy, from the time he came back when he obviously exceeded everybody’s expectations with how dominant he was not only on clay, which didn’t surprise a lot of us, but on hard courts. Through the U.S. Open, he was just unbelievable. He was invincible. Then he had what I think was a fairly natural letdown at the end of last year. I think quite frankly it’s carried into this year a little bit.
“I think he’s trying to find his sea legs a little bit. He’s still the favorite to win the French, but it’s closer than it’s ever been between him and Djokovic.”
Said Evert: “I also think that he did such a great job in tweaking his game a little bit and hitting flatter and hitting harder and standing closer to the baseline when he wanted to improve his hard-court and grass-court game. I think that is probably not as effective as three or four years ago when he was hitting with more trajectory. I think it was coming over the net a little bit higher with some more spin, keeping the players back further.”
Evert also believes players are figuring out better strategies against Nadal, hitting shorter angles and “getting him off the baseline.”
On the women’s side, reigning champion Serena Williams, at age 32, remains the woman to beat. She is getting more comfortable on clay, owns an apartment in Paris, and her coach is French, so “if she is healthy and motivated,” she should win, Evert said.
“She’s learned to play on the clay a lot better, and improved her defense skills,” Evert said. “She’s always had the offense skills. She’s more fit. She’s moving better. She is patient. She doesn’t have to go for the winner on the fourth shot. She can wait eight or nine shots and go for the opening. She’s more intelligent and thinking more clearly on the clay than she ever has.”
Added McEnroe: “I never thought I’d say this: I think clay might actually be Serena’s best surface now. As great as she is on every other surface, obviously in her career she’s certainly been better on the faster courts, but it’s almost like she’s less susceptible to upset on clay now because she’s so consistent, steady.”
Is Nadal susceptible to an upset this time around? If so, who would be the victor?
Would it be Djokovic, who surely gained confidence with his win over Nadal in Rome?
Murray, when he is completely healthy and on his game, is capable of knocking off anyone. He looked great against Nadal in Rome, but he is still not fully recovered from back surgery, and it is hard to imagine he will have the stamina to grind it out through two weeks on clay.
“I don't expect [Murray] to be a real threat to win the French at all,” McEnroe said. “But I think he’ll want to play well there, as he did in Rome.
“The best part of his year obviously is the grass, defending his Wimbledon title, then the summer on the hard courts. I think a good result for him would be to make the second week, but I think he’s vulnerable to a lot more players on clay than he is on any other surface.”
Could Roger Federer win it? He’s the only French Open winner other than Nadal in the past nine years, having won in 2009. He had looked good earlier this year, but with the birth of a second set of twins — boys, Leo and Lenny — he is probably a bit distracted and sleep-deprived. He skipped Madrid for the birth of the babies and lost in Rome to Jeremy Chardy. Federer did make it to the final at Monte Carlo, Monaco, but lost to fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka.
Wawrinka is the other man to watch. The reigning Australian Open champion has shown he can play on any surface. Could someone such as Nishikori, Grigor Dmitrov, Almagro or Milos Raonic pull off the upset?
“There’s definitely some signs that the outsiders, the contenders, are more than just pretenders at this point,” McEnroe said. “That being said, if you go down the list of who has won not only the majors, but the Masters events, at least on the men’s side, it’s pretty much the same, the same two guys. Federer has had a darn good first half of the year as well. But Nadal and Djokovic are the two players to beat clearly.
“The others are knocking at the door, but they haven’t broken through yet in the big occasions.”