Rafael Nadal will always be the King of Clay, but his quarterfinal defeat at the 2015 French Open officially marks his remarkable dynasty. History will record June 8, 2014, as the final chapter of the Spaniard’s dynasty, the day he and rival Novak Djokovic slogged through a physically difficult four-set French Open final. Then, the Spaniard hoisted up his ninth Musketeers Cup in 10 years.
The reality is that Nadal has not been relevant as a contender in the past year.
His last four majors have resulted in a fourth-round exit at Wimbledon, absent at the U.S. Open, and quarterfinal exits at the Australian and French Opens. He has been shut out of the Masters 1000 championships, and he carries one small pennant from Argentina, something perhaps not even worthy enough to dust off his trophy case. He will be ranked No. 10 on Monday (or No. 11 if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga wins his semifinal).
It was only a minor surprise that Djokovic snuffed him out quicker than his birthday candles. Many tennis fans and media will shake at Nadal’s hourglass, wondering if there is still time and magic left for another major title.
Yes, he is no longer the youthful energetic retriever of 2005 or the implacable superstar who crushed the ATP World Tour in 2010 by winning three majors on three different surfaces. He stretched out his dominance through a nearly invincible 2012 clay-court season and held off Djokovic for two subsequent years. It’s even more astonishing considering this is essentially Year No. 5 of King Novak’s reign.
French Open loss No. 2 (OK, he also has 70 wins) for Nadal is a day of closure, and it simplifies the remainder of his career somewhat. The really only important question left is if he can return to form as a major contender one last time.
Yes he will.
King of Comebacks
While rivals Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have created a more linear ascension to the top of the tennis world (and more straightforward for tennis pundits), Nadal’s legacy reads more like a seismograph in the Ring of Fire. He has navigated injuries and lapses of lost months, always bouncing back to spin out major titles like the high-rising topspin that has defined his wicked forehand.
Nadal fans know all too well the stories of 2005-06, 2009, 2012 and 2014. It reads more like classical theater, tragedy and triumph, near-fatal wounds and soaring returns. The most overlooked part of his chronicles is that he has redefined how we shape tennis champions in terms of mental toughness, fighting spirit and physical stamina.
Plenty of other talented players have been derailed by much less adversity. It’s a credit to his talent, yes, but also to his aching determination to rise again. The fight is in his eyes, even if his snarl has been more searching than searing. He will not hesitate to pick himself off the canvas for another championship opportunity.
Immediately after his latest defeat, under the plundering hordes of obituary writers, Nadal didn’t blink in offering his succinct outlook, per ATP World Tour:
I accept the defeats and there is only one sure thing: I want to work harder even than before to come back stronger.
I am going to fight. I lost in 2009 and it was not the end. I lost in 2015 and it is not the end. I hope to be back here next year with another chance.
You have to accept it and congratulate the other player. Then you have to analyse the reasons and then work really hard. This is what I think I'll have to do now.
Nadal’s courage and mentality have never been in question. The challenge is there, and he accepts it. Ah, but is his body willing to cooperate? Will he rejuvenate and recover? Can he manipulate time once again, deferring the winter of his career for a late autumn summer?
Back to the Grind
The 29-year-old Nadal has aged and adjusted quite well in his late prime years. His 2013 summer sweep at the U.S. Open Series was evidence enough that he was willing to change his tactics as needed. He was willing to flatten out his forehand and look for quicker points on fast hard courts, not an easy task for a colder, harder tech-like surface so foreign to his beloved, earthy red clay.
Does Nadal need other tactics and adjustments to power up his game and strike back at Djokovic? After all, he was bludgeoned 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 by Djokovic’s power and precision. It’s tempting to offer that he needs to club his way back into the rivalry.
Or maybe Nadal needs a more patient return to his strengths.
The King of Clay crafted his unusual and extraordinary talents into an all-surface champion because he found he could win playing like Nadal. His variety of spins and changes of pace, sound alternative fundamentals and defensive tenacity made him the greatest player in the game during his peaks. He could bedevil Roger Federer, frustrate Djokovic and outgrind anyone else.
His return as Rafa will happen when he works even harder on his fitness, perhaps slimming down, conditioning his legs for more spurtability and indefatigable retrieving. He was pasted by Djokovic in every conceivable way, but to fall victim too often to drop shots or watch his rival make him hit one more ball and throw in an extra few mistakes had to be a bitter taste for Nadal.
Fresher legs, more hops, infectious energy and a grinder’s mentality. It’s not easy, and certainly nobody else has ever done it to the level Nadal has shown. He struck fear in opponents who knew they would need at last a marathon to survive.
It’s something Nadal can do again. More control than power. Patience to pick away at his opponents. Not a reinvention but a rediscovery. He is not playing to defy history but to seize the future.
It won’t be easy. He will probably have to bide his time and rebuild through Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Other younger challengers are looking to add their one-name brands to the sports world, youngsters like (Nick) Kyrgios, Borna (Coric) and (Jack) Sock—OK, he's getting American hype—even if the Lost Generation never breaks through.
There will be plenty of worthy veterans like Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Andy Murray. And there will be Djokovic. Always Djokovic.
Nadal’s return to defensive fitness can still work again with spectacular results, whether it’s putting away David Ferrer, giving a lesson to Dominic Thiem and getting inside Djokovic’s head like it were the third set of the 2013 U.S. Open.
It might be proven that Djokovic is not a cyborg, that he cannot continue his torrid pace into the next century. Maybe Nadal can create a fifth phase to their rivalry. Other ATP stars or the demanding nature of the ATP tour could wear Djokovic down a bit. Even King Novak has had to recalibrate from occasional lulls.
In spite of all he can do, Nadal will still need some breaks. He’s going to have to play his way up into the rankings, jockey for better seedings, get some friendly and fortunate draws at the 2016 Australian Open and 2016 French Open.
He will need to be relentless and positive through future setbacks, chalking up some top-10 wins and resurfacing with Masters 1000 titles at places like Monte Carlo and Rome.
Can it be done? Yes. Will he pull off the veiled suggestions from this year’s outlying slide in the “Bold Predictions” column, the prognosis that will need months, not days to determine? After all, Nadal himself is not going to be Rafa in a matter of days. He’s familiar with the hellish training and fighting required in the months ahead. That’s all that matters to him right now.