Rafael Nadal: Rare Loss on Dirt Should Stoke Motivational Fire

Andrew Prochnow@@AndrewProchnowAnalyst IApril 21, 2014

Rafael Nadal of Spain reacts after losing a point against David Ferrer of Spain during their quarterfinals match of the Monte Carlo Tennis Masters tournament in Monaco, Friday, April 18, 2014. Ferrer won 7-6 6-4. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Michel Euler

Expect a speedy return of the sneer.

Expect a more vicious snarl.

That's right, Rafael Nadal will be back, likely with a vengeance.

One can only imagine what the sight of Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka playing in the Monte Carlo Masters' final did to Nadal, but one guess is that it gave him a little extra motivation.

Nadal is after all the "King of Clay" and he was unceremoniously ousted from a tournament he's won on eight former occasions, when his countryman David Ferrer beat him in straight sets during the quarterfinals last week.

For the world of tennis, the result for Nadal—especially on that particular surface—was quite a shock.

So much so that Matt Wilansky at ESPN.com even wondered in his article "Should we be concerned with Nadal?" whether the single loss may have much broader implications for Nadal in 2014 and beyond.

An alternative—and possibly more realistic theory—might be that Nadal simply had a bad day. The Spaniard appeared frustrated throughout the match and let off more than a few uncharacteristic roars to voice those sentiments.

The more shocking aspect of the match was that Nadal looked less than enthused to be on the court. His mental focus looked inconsistent and he was even out-sneered and out-snarled by Ferrer for a good portion of the match.

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Nadal's intensity simply wasn't there.

If there's a theme in play, it seems more plausible to wonder whether Rafael Nadal appears more effective in the role of the underdog.

It sure seems that way.

Based on Nadal's history, it looks like he plays a lot better when the world doubts him. Rafa has an uncanny ability to put the weight of those doubts on his shoulder and then come up with the his best tennis during the biggest moments.

This was apparent last year when Nadal returned from injury and played a masterful season that saw him reach 14 finals and take home 10 titles.

And much like in the past, once the mountain was ascended, Nadal seems to have run out of steam, motivation, or both.

While Nadal is certainly having a solid start to the year, it's been nowhere near as dominant as last year. Although minus the tweaking of his back in Melbourne, the image of Nadal in 2014 takes on a different frame.

Despite his spectacular career, Nadal has only spent 131 weeks in the number one slot. That's good for 6th on the all-time list over a 13-year career.

When you expand the list to include the top five slots in the world rankings, Nadal goes from sixth to first. According to the ATP World Tour, Nadal has been ranked in the top five longer than any other active player (since May 9, 2005).

The slight decline that typically follows Nadal's strongest periods appears to be playing out again in 2014. Although with the quality of Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, and a resurgent Roger Federer, maybe a slight drop-off is to be expected—the competition aren't exactly pushovers.

Interestingly, Nadal looked more like a fish out of water than the King of Clay returning to his home court against Ferrer in the quarters.

After the match, Nadal admitted as much to the assembled media that he played "entirely wrong." And that is, in fact, exactly how it looked.

Gone was the fighter, the grinder, the battler—the player that many fans have come to expect each and every time Nadal takes the court. Whether this was due to mental fatigue, an emotional letdown, or some other cause isn't currently known.

What is known is that Nadal lost early in a tournament on clay and that just doesn't happen very often. In his career, Nadal is 300-22 on clay. He has won four different clay court tournaments at least six times each. Currently sitting on 43 clay court titles, Nadal only needs 3 more to take the all-time record from Guillermo Vilas.

When it's all said and done, it's virtually impossible to imagine that Rafael Nadal will be anything less than the best surface-specialist the sport of tennis has ever seen.

That's not to say Nadal won't also end up being remembered as the greatest player the game has ever seen, but this latter question is still being answered.

The former is not.

Looking at some of the best players in the history of the game—and their respective winning percentages on their preferred surfaces— helps establish Nadal as the best-ever on his home surface.

Taking a look at the three players with the greatest number of Slam titles is a good place to start this particular investigation. Rafael Nadal has a career winning percentage of .932 on clay. Roger Federer has a career winning percentage of .871 on grass. Pete Sampras has a career winning percentage of .835 on grass. And if you're wondering about hard court, don't bother. Jimmy Connors has the highest winning percentage in history and that measures well short of Nadal at .827.

While that's only a sliver of the full analysis, the fact is Nadal has earned his moniker and then some.

Given Rafa's relationship with the surface, he was no doubt well aware that a couple interlopers from Switzerland decided to crash his clay-court party in Monte Carlo. The result may be that his rivals simply awakened a sleeping dragon and stoked the Spaniard's competitive fires.

As opposed to a symbol that Nadal is in decline, the loss may simply have put a new sizable chip on his shoulder.

Nadal may have some work to do in terms of re-tooling his mentality back on clay. Against Ferrer last week, he looked uncharacteristically impatient. This may have been due to the residual affects of his more aggressive hard court game creeping into his clay-court persona. Or again, he simply might have had a bad day.

Either way, fans should expect that Toni and Rafa Nadal will clean up any mental debris left in Nadal's head as well as leverage the loss in Monaco for every ounce of motivational potential.

The result may be the unleashing of a clay beast even more ferocious than the one seen in years past.

If you doubt that sentiment, you are probably not alone. But Nadal has been fighting and erasing doubts his entire career.

Why should 2014 be any different?