It's not quite time for Rafael Nadal to hit the panic button, nor does he deserve severe criticism following two recent losses on his preferred clay surface. Nadal will still be the prohibitive favorite at the 2014 French Open, and the recent slip-ups are not an indication of what's to come.
A defeat at the hands of Spanish compatriot Nicolas Almagro on Friday in the Barcelona Open quarterfinals was admittedly a surprise. BBC Sport highlighted just how strong Nadal's winning streak was at the ATP's 500 series event:
This suggests an apocalyptic scenario for some of Nadal's detractors, but at some point the superstar was bound to concede some ground in Barcelona after such a sensational track record. Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times noted Nadal's prowess before losses to Almagro and David Ferrer in the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters:
Nadal explained after his match versus Almagro that he simply missed opportunities and just wasn't quite as sharp as usual, per BBC Sport:
I had a lot of chances in the second set when I had the match more controlled but I didn't take them. As the match went on I was less calm but I still had openings in the third set at 3-1 and at 4-4 which I didn't take. This is tennis and you just have to keep going.
That was the case when Nadal faced Ferrer just over a week ago. Ferrer is a crafty opponent whose fitness can frustrate even the best players in the world and bring on a bevy of unforced errors. The issues that plagued Nadal there couldn't be completely eradicated in time for his home tournament.
Neil Harman of The Times expressed doubts about Nadal's competitive edge, especially against a player in Almagro who isn't often composed under pressure:
But let's not get confused. There's no question that Nadal will still be the man to beat at Roland Garros in the season's second Grand Slam event. He has won the French Open a record eight times and is the reigning champion four years running.
Neither loss was of the blowout variety. Friday's encounter with Almagro saw Nadal win the first set with ease 6-2 before falling in a second-set tiebreaker 7-5 and losing the third set 6-4. Ferrer beat Nadal in straight sets, but it was not before a tiebreaker in the opening set and another 6-4 decider.
Perhaps he has suffered from a bit of a mental letdown in recent appearances, but can't Nadal be cut a bit of a break?
He has given his all on every point for the past decade or so, fought through injuries and hiatuses multiple times and has come back as the best player on the planet time and again.
With the way the rankings are constructed in men's tennis, it requires the best players to keep playing. That has contributed to Nadal's health issues, along with his relentless playing style. At age 27, and with the wear and tear on his body and his knees in particular, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Plus, it's not as though Nadal's world-class adversaries are setting the tennis world on fire as of late, either.
Novak Djokovic looked to be poised to overtake Nadal as the best player in the world until a wrist injury at the Monte-Carlo Masters knocked him out of action. "The Serbinator" has also never won the title at Roland Garros and has added pressure to complete the last leg of the career Grand Slam. He lost an epic five-set semifinal clash with Nadal in 2013 and fell in four sets in the final two years ago.
Longtime Nadal nemesis Roger Federer has never been able to consistently beat him and has never done so in the French Open. Defending Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is still struggling to find his form and has not won a singles title this season. All of those developments have created an interesting atmosphere in men's tennis and is all the more reason to endorse Nadal ahead of the next major.
If there is indeed some sort of vulnerability, as Harman suggests, Nadal has all the incentive he needs to extinguish that notion. Djokovic is expected to come back at the Madrid Masters, and Rothenberg raised some pertinent points with regard to that tournament:
Nadal isn't likely to relinquish his top spot in the ATP rankings by playing the tennis he has as of late. That is just the motivation he needs to gain momentum ahead of the French Open, which isn't until May 25.
A better measure of how Nadal will fare at Roland Garros will come when he defends his titles in Madrid and Rome in the coming weeks, as Djokovic tries to work his way back to health and reclaim the top spot in the world. Despite how impressive Djokovic has been before the injury in winning at Indian Wells and crushing Nadal 6-3, 6-3 in the Sony Open final, don't expect the "King of Clay" to let this form continue.
Friday's loss to Almagro and the previous disappointment versus Ferrer will turn out to be minor speed bumps for Nadal as he elevates his game in Madrid and Rome. The number of titles may not be the same, but at this point in his career, the real focus for Nadal has to be chasing history, distinguishing himself as the best French Open player ever and pursuing the all-time Grand Slam title record.