‘The King of Clay’. One of the names that Rafael Nadal has picked up during his illustrious career. The Spaniard has been a force of nature since making his breakthrough in 2005. Nadal broke through the ranks in steamrolling fashion, winning the French Open, becoming only the second male to win the tournament, first time of asking, and the player since Pete Sampras to win a slam title still as a teen.
But what now for Nadal? At 29 he is possibly approaching the end of his peak years and starting to enter the twilight phase of his career, coupled with the emergence of a new generation, will he remain a super power in tennis?
He has suffered defeat in his last two ATP tournaments both on clay. He lost to teenager Dominic Thiem at the Argentine Open and most recently to veteran journeyman Pablo Cuevas at the Rio Open. It has given Nadal much to be concerned with and to mull over.
The two tournaments were meant to be winnable, they were meant to provide Nadal with the platform to build some confidence and form ahead of his favoured trip to Roland Garros. This is undoubtedly a crunch point in his career. Never before would we doubt that Rafa was feeling totally confident or feel that his mental state was shaken. The left-hander didn’t look comfortable against Cuevas, despite taking the first set and being ranked 40 places above the Uruguayan. Rafa himself even admitted it was a missed chance ‘I lost an opportunity. I have to accept it and keep working to try and change the dynamic.’
Still at World No.5 it is hardly a disaster for the Spaniard, but in previous years to come, we would talk of Rafa going a whole clay court season unbeaten. He has also been unlucky with injuries over the past few years suffering with knee problems and looked a yard or so off the pace in the Rio open.
It makes grim reading for Nadal who is yet to win a slam since 2014. That might not seem so long ago, but recently his grand slam records have not been good, having failed to reach the third round of the last Wimbledon, US Open or Australian Open. The loss against Cuevas would suggest that Nadal has lost his fear factor, in previous years he would walk onto the court having already won the match.
Despite his form and confidence plus the new talent coming into the game, there is still hope for ‘The King of Clay.’ The French Open remains his best opportunity for a grand slam tournament, he has only lost twice at Roland Garros in 70 matches there.
Some might ask why has his decline become so sudden. Rodger Federer managed to reach the Australian Open semi-final and the Wimbledon and US open final in his previous three slams. But there is a big difference between the way that Nadal and Federer play. Nadal has been a player which grinds you down, and relies on the whip of his forehand. So to lose any pace or speed on the turn will have a big effect on the way that Nadal moves.
These most recent losses for Nadal are possibly the end for the mighty left-hander, whose name you would fear on the tennis court, his aura has disappeared and now it is a chance to take on ‘The King of Clay.’