Rafael Nadal is in crisis. That is not in question. However, what is unknown and can be asked is this- what lies ahead for the Spaniard? That question will be answered in the next few weeks as Nadal’s no. 1 ATP Ranking and clay-court aura come under further threat at the upcoming ATP 1000 events in Madrid and Rome.
At the end of last season, no one predicted Nadal’s 2014 would shape up like it has done. Though he did not win a tournament after the 2013 U.S Open, that part of the season has always been his weakest and his defeats to Novak Djokovic in Beijing and at the World Tour Finals were not a surprise.
Losing to Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open would not have raised eyebrows either. But once the Serbian was knocked out by Stanislas Wawrinka, few expected the Swiss to beat Nadal, too. Nadal had won the warm-up tournament in Doha after all, and led Wawrinka 12-0 in their head to head.
However, Wawrinka did win, and, to make matters worse, Nadal picked up a back injury in the final. Though he came back to win in Rio, the world no. 1 then lost to Dolgopolov in Indian Wells where he was the defending champion. And a couple of weeks later he was thrashed by Djokovic in the Sony Open final.
Most pundits expected Nadal to pick himself up, dust himself down and get on with what he does best- winning titles on the red Clay. So the manner of his defeat to David Ferrer in the quarter-finals of Monte Carlo was shocking to say the least. Looking defeated before the last ball was struck, an out-of-sorts Nadal lost to a man he had beaten 17 times in a row on the red stuff since last losing to him in 2004 when he was 15. And at a tournament he had won eight times.
Surely, onlookers thought, Nadal would get himself back together again at another tournament he had won eight times, the ATP 500 event in Barcelona. But history repeated itself. Once again, in the quarter-finals, Nadal came up against a countryman over whom he had a dominant head-to-head record of 10-0. And once again, Nadal came up as short as his ground-strokes and was knocked out of the tournament.
Since 2004, Nadal has never gone so far into the clay court season without winning in either Barcelona or Madrid. And he has never won the French Open without winning one of those titles in the lead up, which makes his current crisis somewhat alarming for fans.
More alarm bells might ring the next week in Madrid, though expectations will be lower than in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. While Nadal is the defending champion and has won the title three times, it is his weakest ATP 1000 clay event, the high altitude causing the balls to bounce lower than he likes. Losses in Madrid to Federer in 2009, Djokovic in 2011 and Verdasco in 2012 mean another defeat in the Spanish capital would not be as shocking as his recent ones.
But Nadal will not compete in Madrid without pressure. If Nadal loses before the quarter-finals and Djokovic wins the tournament, Nadal will lose his place at the top of the ATP rankings to his biggest rival and the man who poses the greatest threat to his Roland Garros defense.
Rome will be a pressure cooker of an event, too. If Nadal, a seven time winner, has not played himself into form by then, his rivals will know he is the most vulnerable he has been for over a decade and Roland Garros is as wide open as it has been since 2004 when Gaston Gaudio shocked the tennis world by winning the title.
Unless Nadal can get back his confidence over the next couple of weeks, the crisis will get worse. A crisis which may prove to be great entertainment for neutrals, but will leave Nadal and his fans asking themselves some serious questions in what could turn out to be the darkest days of his long and glittering career.
Commentary by Christian Deverille