Rafael Nadal's loss to Alexandr Dolgopolov in the third round at Indian Wells is hardly cause for alarm, but it has loosened up some of his grip on the No. 1 ranking. The Spaniard will once again need a giant clay-court season to stay atop the ATP Rankings and, given his current form, this is no guarantee.
From one perspective, this is merely another turbulent patch in his career after jetting ahead of the competition. His past history has featured unconquerable dominance followed by shaky bouts with injuries and vulnerable play.
He has rarely dominated this time of the year anyway, with only three titles at Indian Wells and no titles at Miami. It's as much seasonal as conditional. The calendar has not switched to April, when he begins his two-month annihilation of red-clay Europe.
On the other hand, new injuries are more likely as Nadal ages. Recovery could be more difficult, and at some point mastery of the clay world will end. Unless he can bounce back and rip through the Sony Ericsson tournament in Miami, he will need to dominate clay as he has always done, or Novak Djokovic could be mustering his own attack on the hallowed red soils of Europe.
The battle for No. 1 is tightening.
The Numbers Game with Nadal's Ranking Points
In January, Nadal added 1200 ranking points for being a finalist at the Australian Open, because he did not participate there in 2013. (For good measure, he had grabbed 250 points at Doha and had watched Djokovic relinquish 1640 points of his own by falling in the Australian Open quarterfinals.)
Since his loss to Stanislas Wawrinka, Nadal has not been his best self. He lost an opportunity for 800 more points by winning that final. He had to sit out Argentina's 250-point tournament, and he visibly struggled on his way to claim the inaugural tournament at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
But Indian Wells was costly, and Nadal will trade in last year's 1000 points for this year's paltry third-round sum of 45.
Meanwhile, Djokovic's 360 points from his 2013 Indian Wells semifinal appearance could expand into 1000 points with the title. This could reduce the Serbian's deficit at No. 1 with a 1595 point gain on Nadal (Prior to Indian Wells, Nadal led by 3825, but a Djokovic title would cut this lead to 2230 points).
On Monday, the Emirates ATP Rankings will show Nadal with 13130 points. Djokovic will have anywhere from 9990 to 10900 points.
Searching for his Peak Form
Nadal's two tough matches at Indian Wells exposed his physical struggles with his serve. He was often stiff and upright with his serving motion, which led to several balls that Dolgopolov could attack. Nadal rarely was set up to hammer a service return with his forehand; instead, he found himself often controlled by his opponent's power.
Furthermore, Nadal hit too many short balls during baseline rallies, and many were punished by Dolgopolov. In truth, had it not been for some of Dolgopolov's silly errors, Nadal would have watched more winners whiz by.
Nadal also was more reluctant to hit high topspin consistently to Dolgopolov's backhand. The Ukrainian often drilled high-floaters with impressive power. He clearly controlled the match.
Nadal's post-match highlight response to ATP World Tour said, "Forget about the back. I don't want to talk about the back anymore because my back is fine."
But while Nadal will look to recover his best form, it's important to note that he struggles to win unless he is firing on all cylinders. Unlike Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, Nadal cannot rescue his game by relying on a huge serve or easy points. His grinding style means that his fitness and health are imperative to outlasting opponents. He must thrive with his trademark skills to win longer points.
Nadal's best success must also come on the clay courts. There is not as much opportunity to rack up titles and points on clay compared to hard courts favored more by Djokovic. Nadal must not only capitalize on clay in 2014, but he will be hard-pressed to sweep the three big North American tournaments in August-September.
To compensate, Nadal must also have a deep run at Wimbledon, and bite into a big (Masters 1000 or WTF) trophy or two after the U.S. Open, something that he has not accomplished in his career.
So Nadal has plenty of tennis work ahead, all of which require his best energy and tennis. And he will be fending off more than Novak Djokovic, if the past two months are any indication. Roger Federer could make a run at the top, and a resurgent Andy Murray could change things in the summer and fall. Even inspired play by the likes of Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov could hand out more upsets of top players at big tournaments.
Despite some of these documented warning signs, Nadal is still actually No. 2 in points accumulated in 2014 with 1950 total. It's still a fair start, if not the one he wanted this year.
The surprise leader? None other than Wawrinka, who is looking to add to his 2290 points.
How Much Longer?
Nadal has proven to be an extraordinary legend in tennis. He has often followed up disappointment with triumph in spectacular and unprecedented fashion. But it's also not the time to expect that he can win four or five more career majors. It's possible, but so much has to go right for each and every major.
There is time for more grand success, but we also don't know if Nadal's 2013 was his last great year, the mirror image to Federer's 2009. Nobody could have imagined that Australia 2010 would mark the end of that great Federer resurgence.
If the past is any indication, Nadal will certainly be unconventional with his remaining success. Like Federer, nobody is counting him out, but it will also be increasingly difficult.
On to Miami.