Few things in sports over the past decade have been as certain as Rafael Nadal winning on clay. But so far in 2014, it's not such a sure thing.
Nadal did walk away with the trophy at the Mutua Madrid Masters tournament on Sunday, but it was far from a convincing victory. The world No. 1 was down a set and a break to 24-year-old Kei Nishikori before Nishikori's back injury flared up. Nadal ended up winning 2-6, 6-4, 3-0 (ret.) for his fourth Madrid Open title.
Early in the match, Nishikori was in complete control. The Japanese player, who will enter the ATP's top 10 for the first time on Monday, was simply taking the match out of Nadal's hands. He was playing aggressive, geometrical tennis, finishing points with such precision that the clay court didn't even seem like a factor.
Nadal simply had no answers. Compared to his usually fiery on-court persona, the King of Clay looked downright lifeless. He was playing off of his back foot, spraying errors and hitting forehands short and in the middle of the court. There was no agile movement, depth or power. He looked painfully ordinary.
The Spaniard was able to play himself into the match a little bit, but Nishikori, who is coached by Michael Chang, looked well on his way to the upset when his back began aching up 6-2, 4-2.
According to the Associated Press (via tennis.com), Nadal's coach and uncle, Toni, didn't feel like his nephew deserved the victory: "We don't deserve the victory, (Nishikori) deserves it, he played better than us the whole time. We had a lot of luck today. We didn't really come back, he was hurt."
By itself, this match against Nishikori might not be ringing a lot of alarm bells. However, despite having a season that most players would consider their best ever, Nadal has struggled according to his lofty standards recently.
This year, Nadal is 30-5 with three titles and an appearance in the Australian Open final. However, particularly in the last month, he's looked like a shadow of the player that Andre Agassi considers the greatest of all time.
Since April, Nadal has played two clay-court tournaments and lost in the quarterfinals of both. An eight-time champion at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters and the Barcelona Open, Nadal fell to fellow Spaniards David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro, respectively.
Since his back injury affected his loss in the Australian Open final, Nadal just hasn't been the confident and commanding player that brought him to the No. 1 ranking. He's struggled with his game, but more than that, he's seemed to struggle with himself.
I don’t want to say it’s disingenuous but it’s almost like an unrealistic level of humility. Psychologically his approach helps him to be ready for every opponent and every point. That sense of urgency is so admirable, but I have to say it’s incredibly exhausting.
What I do buy is a lot of the stuff that could be mentally or emotionally related.
Nadal's best asset, besides that lethal forehand, has always been his ability to dig down deep and get himself out of bad situations. He wills himself to win matches that he has no business winning, and he plays every point like it's his last. His game is a delicate balance between physical dominance and mental resiliency.
Lately, as Annacone and Clarey suggested, that balance has been off. However, when speaking with the press after his Madrid win, Nadal seemed at piece with his attitude and outlook:
Nadal has eight French Open titles and is 307-23 on clay courts with 44 total titles. He is without a doubt the best clay-court player of all time. It's alarming to see him look human on this surface, but he's always one shot from turning it all around.
In his career, he has overcome multiple injuries, extremely off days and bitter disappointments, and he has always bounced back stronger than ever. He's the Roland Garros favorite no matter what.
He might look shaky to the naked eye, but if Nadal is healthy and feeling good mentally, he's going to still be pretty impossible to catch in Paris. However, this year, it might be worth tuning into the opening rounds just in case.