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Rafael Nadal's Back Woes Are Cause for Concern as 2014 French Open Progresses

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 31:  Rafael Nadal of Spain prepares to serve during his men's singles match against Leonardo Mayer of Argentina on day seven of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Chris RolingFeatured ColumnistJune 2, 2014

Has Rafael Nadal reached the slipping point?

Every athlete, no matter how dominant—even a King—has a point where the decline is unavoidable.

For someone hailed as the King of Clay, Nadal has looked a shell of his former self as of late, sans a few opening rounds in Paris.

This past weekend, Nadal breezed past Argentina’s Leonardo Mayer 6-2, 7-5, 6-2, but the factor that should raise some eyebrows is his admission that a back injury has hurt his productivity, as captured by ESPN:

"During my career, I had (a) few problems. ... Hopefully will not be (the) case" the rest of the way in Paris, Nadal said.

"I served more slowly since I started feeling the pain," he said, noting that he's worn tape on his back for extra support.

Now pair this with some noticeable performance drops, as recorded by The Associated Press, via USA Today:

Against Mayer, Nadal averaged only 102 mph (165 kph) on first serves, with a top speed of 114 mph (184 kph). That was down from an average of 111 mph (179 kph) and top of 122 mph (197 kph) in the first round against Robby Ginepri last Monday.

Through six sets across his first two matches, Nadal faced only five break points and lost serve only twice. He needed to deal with eight break points against Mayer, losing two.

For the uninitiated, Nadal is every bit the sport's most dominant participant in Paris, as ESPN Stats & Info helps to detail:

So while yet another strong showing is both fully expected and impressive, Nadal's flirtation with injury is quite the slippery slope for the aging star.

Think back to Australia in January, when he was upended in the final against Stanislas Wawrinka. A hint of back issues was certainly part of the narrative for a shocking loss at a venue most are accustomed to seeing him dominate.

Look at the Monte Carlo Masters in April, where David Ferrer got the best of Nadal in the quarterfinals—good for Nadal's earliest exit at the tournament since 2003.

It's easy to shrug off. After all, been there, done that in regard to Nadal battling through an injury. Even the proverbial "draw of death" for Nadal looks a lot softer than anticipated. Wawrinka is gone. So is Nicolas Almagro and Tommy Haas.

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 31:  Rafael Nadal of Spain serves during his men's singles match against Leonardo Mayer of Argentina on day seven of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 31, 2014 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

But in a season of wild upsets where names like Wawrinka and Serena Williams have been victimized, who is to say Nadal's newfound path to the final that looks "easy" is anything of the sort? Especially for Nadal, perhaps the star with the biggest target on his back who gets his opponent's best each and every match?

Even if Nadal makes short work of his portion of the bracket while nursing a seemingly oft-occurring back issue, arch rival Novak Djokovic may very well await the King of Clay in the final.

It's not that Nadal needs the win this year. His legacy is cemented. But the end of an era always seems to come at an inopportune time for the greats. Nadal's continued battles with injuries that come with age (Remember his serious bouts with knee issues?) suggest the end may be closer than most expect.

Is it really a shock a player who has struggled at what used to be routine events may bow out early in Paris? No. Nadal owns the proceedings there, but yet another injury issue may continue what has been a disturbing trend this season.


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