Rafael Nadal looks for his ninth career title at the Barcelona Open, but more importantly he will be searching for his clay-court dominance. Following a disappointing quarterfinal loss at Monte Carlo, Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell reported that Nadal immediately went to work with his uncle Toni on his forehand.
Is this week's Barcelona Open where Nadal regains his best form, or will he need more time?
Will he extend his clay-court dominance, or has it already ended?
No player has ever dominated one surface the way Nadal has from 2005 to 2013. Most tennis fans can cite his cartoon-like numbers on clay and consider if they might be infinitely unbreakable. Even red-clay legends such as Gustavo Kuerten, Ivan Lendl and Bjorn Borg stand as passenger pigeons to Nadal's fiber-optic global domination. The speed, pace and results to modern clay tennis have changed forever. There are no more clay-legacy comparisons when it comes to the greatest.
Except that Future Nadal will one day not measure up to his own past as Invincible Rafa. Future Nadal will take some drubbings, or at least lose matches and title opportunities more frequently than Invincible Rafa.
He will become a victim of his own success. Invincible Rafa has been so dominant that anything less than added achievements to this incredible standard will sound the alarms. It will be the sky falling, Rome burning and doomsday-warning parading on sandwich boards.
And that day is always one or two matches away.
For instance, if Nadal wins the Barcelona and Italian Opens, but fails to win Monte Carlo (check), Madrid (reasonable) and the French Open (not a lock), will we look back at the 2013 French Open final as the last day of his clay dynasty? It would still be a great clay-court season by almost anyone else, but it might signal the end of Nadal's almighty grip on his favorite surface.
The Three Levels
How about a results-based way to measure Nadal's present and future dominance:
- Level Three is Invincible Rafa from 2005-2013. It means winning multiple Masters 1000 titles and the French Open. For nine straight years, Invincible Rafa has won at least two of the combination of Masters 1000/French Open titles. He has time to accomplish this in 2014.
- Level Two will happen the instant Nadal "only" wins one Masters 1000/French Open title. If he wins the latter only, we could arguably count this as "still a great season," but it would be weaker than any of the previous nine years. (Though we could also agree that one French Open title is better than two Masters 1000 titles, as in 2009.) This could happen in 2014 or be postponed.
- Level One will happen when Future Nadal no longer wins a Masters 1000 title on clay. He could still be a contender for mid-level clay-court tournaments or bounce back for occasional big-tournament wins, but his dominance would likely be over.
Nadal will be 28 years old in June. This is an interesting time if we look at this age for Pete Sampras and Roger Federer:
1n 1999, Sampras polished off Andre Agassi with a thoroughly dominating Wimbledon final. One month later, he turned 28. He was still a great player, but only in spurts. He battled several injuries and needed the perfect storm of a fast court, efficient matches and fresh recovery.
Sampras nearly lost the first two sets of the 2000 Wimbledon final to Patrick Rafter but had enough experience and game to win. At the U.S. Open final, he was destroyed by Marat Safin. His No. 1 aura seemed finished in a match that made Sampras look slower and older. In 2001, he was ousted in Wimbledon's fourth round and beat up again in the U.S. Open final. In 2002, he put together a miraculous run as the No. 17 seed to win his final Grand Slam title, but his best tennis had been over for at least three years.
Federer had his last multi-Major season in 2009, just before he turned 28. After that birthday, he lost the U.S. Open to Juan Martin del Potro and took the Australian Open to begin 2010. He did not immediately fall prey to injuries but there was a gradual decline in his physical powers.
While Nadal and Novak Djokovic got stronger, Federer's opportunities became more difficult. He had a wonderful burst from late 2011 through Wimbledon 2012, briefly recapturing the No. 1 ranking and winning his only Major of the past four years.
Now it's Nadal's turn to enter this zone, and considering the mileage on his knees, it's been amazing he has held on this long. Will he be able to turn in another season like 2013? The odds are against this, but it's possible.
It's more likely that Nadal will eventually circle the wagons around his clay courts and look to keep winning these Masters 1000 tournaments and the French Open, even at the exclusion of hard courts and Wimbledon.
In a way, the short clay-court season might help Nadal pace himself as he ages. He only needs to peak for about eight weeks, at a time many fast-court players will be coming off hard-courts priorities and looking ahead to Wimbledon.
It might be strange to say, but if the clay-court season was weighted like hard courts (two Majors, six Masters 1000 tournaments, WTF final), he might have already worn down from the effort of trying to win and defend all of this. The shorter window each year allows him to double up and defend at a greater energy.
But now Nadal is trying to regroup with the clay-court season at his second chance of five. This is unusual for him because he must go back to the Batcave and put on his invincible armor without taking time away from his own territory.
How Much Longer?
His mission now is to win Barcelona and establish the fearsome factors to his game. It seems imperative that he builds his tenuous confidence and thereby deny it for his opponents as much as possible. The clay-court season is a package of tournaments, one seemingly building on the next as if to weed out pretenders and test the endurance and will of those who dare to challenge at Roland Garros.
And Maybe Invincible Rafa will don his cape, show up and save the day at Madrid or Rome and then the French Open title. All will be well and Level Three rolls over to 2015.
Or maybe we are seeing Nadal's gradual decline. We could see him win eight European clay-court titles over the next four years, including a couple Masters 1000 titles and a French Open title or two. This would still be great for about anyone else, but mere mortality for Future Nadal.
And he would unlikely challenge Federer's record 17 Grand Slam titles.
There are several determined champions right now who would love to knock off Invincible Rafa and claim some clay-court titles that have been all but choked off by the great Spaniard.
Nadal hopes his dominance, big forehand and old confidence is somewhere on the courts in Barcelona. Maybe it's all just safely tucked away in his equipment bag, ready for him to grab and unleash.
But how much longer will he have it?