This year, Rafael Nadal has reinvented himself. This year Nadal has changed his serve, his strokeplay, his footwork and his all-round strategy to be able to evolve with the changes in his body as he grows older.
The Spaniard has long been considered unbeatable on clay - and for years, he has more than proven and lived up to that moniker. Until even a few months ago based on just how well he was playing, one would have to predicted that Nadal would win the French Open. After all, already having broken his own record for 11 titles last year, Nadal is going for it again this year.
This year, too, Nadal started off with a bang.
Straightway, he threw himself into the deep end, beginning his season with the Australian Open with no hard-court tournaments beforehand. Despite this, he defeated a litany of young opponents - many of whom are considered the ATP’s Next Generation stars, and proceeded to make short work of each and every one. Progressing to the final without dropping a set - something even his eventual rival, Novak Djokovic, did not do.
And then, Nadal surprised even more - by losing to the Serbian in straight sets in a decidedly one-sided final. The 32-year-old made yet another semi-final in the 2019 season, this time at a court literally named after him - Pista Rafael Nadal - at the Madrid Masters.
While the Spaniard has been in great form this year, his performances and form over the past few months, in the lead up to, and during the clay season, have shown us why we can no longer take for granted that he will win the 2019 French Open.
At the 2019 Monte-Carlo Masters, Nadal was down 1-4 at one point to the Argentine Guido Pella, before scraping back to take that set in a tiebreak, and eventually the match in straight sets. While Pella is a talent, at French Open, Nadal will face stiffer challenge by those who are far more consistent and possess more prowess of playing on clay, against whom he might not be able to create that second chance.
The fact that Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic are both in the best of form will add more to Nadal's worries. The Serbian No 1 made quick work of Nadal at the most recently played Grand Slam and Dominic Thiem owns a decent record against Nadal on clay. This year he beat Nadal at the semi-finals in Barcelona, with the Austrian taking a straight-sets win.
One can't say that Nadal has been having a poor season. By normal standards, he is having a brilliant one. But by his own standards, perhaps he is not still there this year.
After making - and retiring from - the semi-finals at Indian Wells, the Spaniard began his clay-court season in Monte Carlo, where he has won the title eleven times of the twelve finals he has appeared in. Despite this, he was outclassed by the mercurial, talented yet often inconsistent Fabio Fognini, in yet another one-sided game, with the Italian winning 6-4, 6-2.
Then, many suggested he was 'saving his best for last', conserving his best tennis for the French Open. But each time Nadal has won his last two titles, he has won all but one title in the clay season lead up to Roland Garros.
2017 was perhaps the biggest year for Rafael Nadal watchers precisely because it was to be the year of his La Decima. Nadal steamrolled through that season, winning the titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid in quick succession.
The Spaniard took La Decima - first used for Real Madrid’s feat in 2014, becoming the first tennis player in the Open Era to win ten titles at a single event.
The past year was one of unprecedented success for Rafael Nadal. Starting off the clay swing with two straight-sets rubbers won at the Davis Cup, Nadal defended his title at the Monte-Carlo Masters, then followed it up with yet another title defence soon after.
At Barcelona, Rafael Nadal won his 20th ATP 500 title, and all without dropping a set. His rival in the final was a then rising-star more familiar to tennis-watchers today - a Greek named Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had also not dropped a set all tournament. Indeed, Tsitsipas, then relatively less known, had defeated clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem 6-3, 6-2 on the way.
The Greek would win a sum total of three games against a dominant Nadal in that final.
Although Nadal faltered in the quarterfinals in a tough battle against Dominic Thiem in Madrid, he bounced back at the Italian Open to win yet another title as he firmly cemented just why he was indeed the favourite to win Roland Garros.
Nadal has dominated the entirety of the clay season, whenever he has won the French Open. This year, that has not been the case.
At Indian Wells earlier this year, only the day before he was due to appear against Roger Federer in the semi-finals, Nadal withdrew with a knee injury he sustained in the semi-finals against Karen Khachanov. In a statement last month following his earlier-than-usual exit in Monte Carlo, the Spaniard said that while he though he believes he has been playing good tennis, his season has not been an ‘ideal’ one, and that there had been a “few more problems” than he would have liked.
Yes, Nadal is unarguably the greatest clay-courter to have played the game. But this time around, there are several around him who are claimants to the French Open title and just waiting for even the smallest chance that Nadal falters - front-runners among them the in-form Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic.
Thiem has looked almost flawless, and this year brought clay specialist Nicolas Massu onto his team. He also has athleticism on his side. While that is not to say that Nadal is not athletic, what Thiem has to his benefit is youth, and fewer injuries picked up along the way. And that is what could be the difference. With both Thiem and Djokovic at the top of their game this year, it may not be solely the 'Nadal show' at Roland Garros in 2019.
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Updated Date: May 26, 2019 15:55:42 IST