"Struggling" Rafael Nadal Cruises into Final at Rome Masters

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Since the start of the European clay court season, almost every shred of media coverage in the world of international tennis has focused on Rafael Nadal's "struggles" on clay in 2014.

Certainly, after dominating a single surface to a greater degree than any previous player in tennis history, it's not surprising that today's 24-hour media machine would try and make a mountain out of a molehill. 

There are four tournaments that constitute the meat of the clay court season, and Rafael Nadal has etched himself into the very essence of those red-dusted venues like no other player the game has ever seen. 

The numbers are simply mind-boggling.

Nadal has won the Masters 1000 in Monte Carlo eight times, the Masters 1000 in Madrid four times, the Masters 1000 in Rome seven times, and the French Open in Paris eight times. If you include the 500-level tournament in Barcelona then you need to add another eight titles to Nadal's total haul during his career swing through European clay.

Rafael Nadal is in fact the only the second player (Guillermo Vilas) in the history of the Open Era to win a tournament eight times, and he has done that at three different events, while sitting only one title away at a fourth.

Comparing that degree of dominance to Nadal's 2014 results certainly should draw some questions about his current form. Nadal was knocked out of Monte Carlo by David Ferrer in the quarterfinals and then followed that up with another quarterfinal loss to Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona. 

It was after these relatively poor showings that the media really started to drive the storyline that Nadal was somehow on the decline. Such widespread alarm is clear in the description of Nadal's victory over Mikhail Youzhny recently at the Rome Masters.

Sports Illustrated described the match in the following manner, "No. 1 Rafael Nadal survived another tough match at the Italian Open, rallying past Mikhail Youzhny 6-7 (4), 6-2, 6-1 on Friday to advance to the quarterfinals."

The question is in what universe a thrashing like 6-2, 6-1 in the second and third sets would be appropriately described as "tough," especially from Nadal's perspective?

A more appropriate characterization might have been "After a tough first set, Rafael Nadal proceeded to wipe the floor with Mikhail Youzhny by giving up only three games over the course of the last two sets."

Such a theme continued after Nadal's victory over Andy Murray in the quarterfinals at Rome. After that match, the ESPN mobile tennis page read in large letters,  "Going OT Again" with the following description after Nadal's victory: "Rafael Nadal needs three sets to knock off Andy Murray in Rome."

As if needing three sets to beat a multiple Slam winner indicates some sort of weakness. 

First, overtime (OT) in tennis would be the equivalent of a final set tiebreaker or playing more than 12 games in the last set. Nadal's match against Murray required neither. Second, top-tier players that play out the full three sets in the quarterfinals of a Masters 1000 event isn't exactly unusual.

Despite all the doom and gloom surrounding Nadal's game after Barcelona, he actually responded by winning the title in Madrid, a venue that plays faster and has never been perfectly suited to the Spaniard's game.

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While many credited Nadal's victory in Madrid to a Kei Nishikori injury instead of improvements in his form, the Spaniard nonetheless took home his record 27th Masters 1000 title, extending his lead in that category to six over Roger Federer. 

As of today, Nadal is in his second consecutive Masters 1000 final on clay in 2014 after cruising over Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals of Rome by a score of 6-2, 6-2. If the King of Clay goes on to win this title as well the French Open at the end of the month, he will have netted two Masters 1000 trophies and a Grand Slam during the European swing.

A highly probable scenario and one that would certainly make all those articles questioning his form on clay in 2014 look mighty questionable themselves. 

The fact is that while Nadal may not be dominating like years past, the rest of the men's top players have also been fighting consistency problems.

World No. 2 Novak Djokovic lost to a formidable Roger Federer in the semifinals at Monte Carlo this year and was subsequently forced out of the Madrid Masters by a lingering wrist injury. One has to wonder how that wrist will hold up when the tour arrives in Paris and switches to the more grueling best-of-five format. 

Stan Wawrinka has been even more disappointing than Djokovic and doesn't have the convenience of an injury to use as an excuse. After winning the Australian Open earlier this year, Wawrinka has played some fairly unexceptional tennis. In four of the five events he entered since, Wawrinka has exited the competition prior to the quarterfinals. 

The number one player in Switzerland did beat Roger Federer to win his first Masters 1000 Monte Carlo, but he followed that up with early-round losses at both Madrid and Rome.

Roger Federer, currently ranked fourth in the world, has been similarly inconsistent. While Federer's game has improved since 2013, the Swiss Maestro still only has one title to his name in 2014 (Doha) and hasn't won a Masters 1000 or Grand Slam since mid-2012. Federer lost his first match in Rome to the 47th-ranked Jeremy Chardy after returning from paternity leave this week. 

Andy Murray, arguably the weakest link in the now-disintegrating "Big Four," is ranked eighth in the world and has been struggling to find his game after back surgery during the offseason. Murray recently parted ways with coach Ivan Lendl, and the combination of these factors may help explain why he hasn't made it past the quarters in his last four events. 

After the big-name players, the world's favorite dark horse at the upcoming French Open appears to be Kei Nishikori. The Japanese star made a splash in a comeback win over Roger Federer in the 2014 Miami Masters. Nishikori followed that up with a title in Barcelona and some impressive play against Rafael Nadal during the final in Madrid.

While Nishikori has certainly made strides under coach Michael Chang's tutelage, he does appear the be struggling with physical endurance. Nishikori was forced to pull out of a match against Djokovic in Miami and then retired against Nadal in Madrid.

The Japanese player is absent in Rome this week as he tries to recover in time for the start of play at Roland Garros

It's fairly clear that while Rafael Nadal's 2014 "struggles" have been featured prominently in the headlines, the balance of the men's side of the game has been similarly disappointing, if not worse. 

Novak Djokovic is battling a wrist injury, Stan Wawrinka has been extremely inconsistent, Roger Federer hasn't won a big tournament in nearly two years, and both Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori are fighting physical limitations.

The fact is that when the first can of balls hisses open at the French Open this year, Rafael Nadal will still be a big favorite to take home a record ninth Coupe des Mousquetaires.

The man from Mallorca may not be the same imposing figure we've seen in recent years, but in the best-of-five format on clay, his style of grinding opponents down through non-stop defense and emotionally draining counterpunching should still be enough to propel him to the 2014 title.

Any analysis that concluded Nadal was "struggling" after only a couple clay-court tournaments in 2014 was premature at best, especially without considering the broader competitive environment on tour. 

Considering that more complete picture, the smart money is still likely betting Rafa will take home his ninth trophy in Paris come June.

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