Rafael Nadal: Can He Lose at the Slam Level While Healthy?

AndersCorrespondent IIIFebruary 23, 2011

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 05:  Rafael Nadal of Spain celebrates after defeating Gilles Simon of France during the men's singles match on day seven of the 2010 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2010 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

Rafael Nadal is currently the reigning champion in three out of the four Slams.

Going for his fourth consecutive Slam title, the Rafa Slam, he lost in straights to David Ferrer in a match in which Ferrer played great, but Nadal was hobbled in his movement from a leg injury early on.

Nadal, a man who many a fan has declared unbeatable in a five-set match while healthy, has in fact not lost a Grand Slam match for the last three years without there being some reason for it.

The last time he did? Well, that was in 2008, just prior to him reaching his first period of dominance at the top, against as hot a player as one can imagine.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga beat Nadal 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, Nadal's worst loss in a Slam since the US Open in 2004 against Andy Roddick. Against Tsonga, Nadal could do nothing, he himself stated in the reports.

'“I was playing fine,” Nadal said. “He played unbelievable. Congratulate him.”

Tsonga didn’t face any break points until the third set, when he saved three in one game.

“I can’t believe some of his volleys,” Nadal said. “I tried to play little bit slower; I tried to play a little bit faster; I tried to play more inside the court, behind the court. No chance. Not today.”'

That was just how good Tsonga was.

Since then, few have been able to upset Nadal in the Slams, and as I will argue, none have done it without it being possible to presume some reason for Nadal losing other than his opponent simply having a good day.

With just a tiny bit of spin, it is possible to prove that a healthy Nadal hasn't lost a Slam tournament after entering his prime at 22 years old at the French Open in 2008. 

As we know, he won both the French and Wimbledon in 2008, respectively crushing and winning a nail-biter against Federer in the process.

Come US Open, and Rafa finds himself down two sets to Andy Murray before rain delays the match. Nadal felt he wasn't playing at his best during the tournament, recovering from his success at the Olympics. On the second day of the match, where Nadal had to win all three sets to proceed, they both won one, so Murray prevailed. It must be added that Nadal felt much more energized and credited Murray with the win.

Nevertheless, the loss has in large parts been attributed to Nadal being slightly off and tired after a successful clay, grass and Olympic campaign.

Come 2009 and Nadal wins his first hard-court Slam, once again defeating Federer.

At the French, the tennis world was stunned when the then relatively unknown Robin Söderling blasted Nadal off the court in a four-set fourth-round victory, only a month after having won a mere one game in a two-set defeat against the Spaniard.

Rafael's post-match comments were not too flattering to the longtime foe, who had brought down the king of Roland Garros.

'“His game didn’t surprise me; I was more surprised by mine,” Nadal said. He continued, “It was my fault more than his. Well sure, he did well, he did very well. But I think I didn’t play my best tennis.” 

Soon, it became clear that there was a reason for that.  

Nadal's knees were injured, and he withdrew from Wimbledon shortly after the draw came out, having lost two exhibition test matches in the last days before the tournament.

Come US Open and Nadal's knees were quite fine again. However, this time he was struggling with an abdominal tear, which prevented his serving to be as good and fast as it can.

Though Nadal did make it to the semis, his hobbled game didn't stand a chance against the revelation and eventual winner of the tournament, Juan Martin del Potro, who won the match 6-2, 6-2, 6-2. 

Next up was the Australian Open, where the defending champion fell in the quarters; being down two sets to love and 3-0 and a double break in the third, Nadal withdrew, citing knee injury as the cause.

He came back strong as he won the next three Slams, setting himself up for the Rafa Slam before falling to Ferrer with yet another injury in this year's Aussie Open.

In the post-match interview, Nadal gave all the credit to Ferrer, not wanting to talk about his injury, as he told reporters, "Seems like I always have problems when I lose, and I don’t want to have this image, no?" 

Nevertheless, he did manage to say something.

"I don’t have to tell you what I felt on the court, but it is obvious I did not feel at my best," Nadal said. "I had a problem with the match at the very beginning, and after that, the match was almost over."


Final thoughts

Many of his supporters tend to think of the Spaniard as unbeatable when healthy and confident. The belief in the Majorcan with the unorthodox, overpowering and relentless game is at a level where he'll win an event as long as he sets his mind to it.

That belief was only slightly hampered when he lost to Federer at the WTF, an event Nadal had stated he wanted to win, as a) Nadal had played a gruelling three-hour semi against Murray, so it's natural that he was tired and b) after all, it was indoors on his very worst surface.

The last three years, the years he can be said to have been in his prime, his supporters thus have ample proof that a healthy Nadal is virtually unbeatable at the most important tournaments, the Slams.

It's not only here—if we add the fifth most important tournament, the WTF, Nadal withdrew with injury in 2008, lost all six sets he played in 2009 (injury) and won all his matches before falling to Federer in the final after being tired because of the Murray match, so he hasn't really lost while healthy here either. 

With Nadal being better at managing his schedule and having developed a more offensive and quicker game that puts a bit less strain on his body, his opponents can expect to face a fresh and healthy Nadal at even more Slam tournaments in the future.

The three questions we are left with are thus:

Can a healthy Nadal be beaten at a Slam while in his prime?

If yes, when will we see it?

Finally, who's capable of beating a healthy Spanish warrior?


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