Those who have observed Rafael Nadal across the heart of his career are fully aware that he is a singularly humble individual living among the community of champions. He never takes anything for granted, always conducts himself honorably, and faces his many challenges forthrightly. The inimitable Spaniard has dealt with his dilemmas as a competitor with a flinty candor and integrity seldom seen in the world of sports. He disdains the notion of sugar coating anything, speaking with a directness reporters have long appreciated, refusing to conceal his vulnerabilities, electing not to swerve from the truth even when casting himself in a less than favorable light.
That point was proven again this past weekend when Nadal was ousted in the semifinals of Madrid by Stefanos Tsitsipas, the gifted 20-year-old Greek who has now established a well-deserved residence at a career high of No. 7 in the world. Nadal was distraught about his performance against a player he had beaten three times in the last year without the loss of a set. He was clearly disappointed in himself and the way he had played in such an important match. It was his third clay court tournament of the 2019 season en route to Roland Garros, and Nadal had suffered the same frustrating fate, bowing out in the penultimate round.
And so he lamented the fact that he had lost by not living up to his highest standards. He said after the
Tsitsipas setback, “Being honest, my feeling is it was more about me tonight. He is young. He is improving. He has good talent. But I don’t see myself losing that match if I played at the same level that I played in Barcelona 2018 and in Australia at the beginning of the season [against him]. That’s my feeling. Maybe it’s not the truth but that is my feeling.”
To some, that might have sounded harsh and unsporting—not qualities we associate with this dignified man—but Nadal was speaking his mind freely, calling it precisely the way he saw it, and not shying away from conveying what he thought had transpired.
His self-criticism was reminiscent of the way he responded in a press conference after being taken apart by Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo. In that encounter, Nadal led 4-3 in the first set, dropped eight consecutive games, and eventually fell 6-4, 6-2. It was only the fourth time in fifteen career meetings that Nadal had lost to the mercurial Italian, and it left him understandably disgruntled. He said afterwards, “It was the kind of day that everything went wrong. I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years. Today I deserved to lose because I played against a player who was better than me.”
Nadal was encouraged the following week in Barcelona despite a 6-4, 6-4 semifinal defeat at the hands of Thiem, the Austrian powerhouse who has beaten him once a year for the past four seasons on the dirt. The Spaniard still felt that he was plainly on the right track and spoke of his growing confidence. In Madrid, he backed up his words with some stellar play on court, eclipsing Felix Auger-Aliassime, Frances Tiafoe and Stan Wawrinka with ease and assurance, allowing the latter only three games in a quarterfinal dissection. Nadal was buoyant after crushing Wawrinka, and eagerly awaiting his semifinal appointment against Tsitsipas.
That showdown did not go the way Nadal might have envisioned it. Indisputably, Tsitsipas played a creative and inventive match, keeping Nadal ill at ease with timely advances to the net and first-rate execution on the low volley, sending his groundstrokes deep and finding the Nadal backhand with uncanny consistency. He prevented the Spaniard from establishing a rhythm in the backcourt and did not allow Nadal nearly enough opportunities to conclude points by smacking inside-out forehands for winners. Tsitsipas was cagey, undaunted by either the Spanish crowd or Nadal, and determined to impose his will against the game’s fiercest competitor. He was magnificent.
And yet, Nadal did not respond to a significant challenge the way he usually does. In the first set, he was pressing from the outset, losing his serve in the opening game. But he built a 3-2 lead and had Tsitsipas serving at 0-40 in the sixth game. Nadal mishit a backhand long, bungled a second serve return off that same wing, and netted a backhand pass on the run that he is more than capable of making. Tsitsipas held on from there to avert a 4-2 deficit. He broke Nadal at 3-3 but the Spaniard retaliated in the eighth game to rally for 4-4. But the Spaniard lost the next two games for the set. Nadal found his range to take the second set, leading some seasoned observers to believe he would close out the match comfortably from there.
But Nadal remained apprehensive, and soon lost his momentum. He held for 1-0 in the third set and had break points for 2-0, but did not convert. He should have held for 3-2 but was broken, and then had 15-40 to rally for 3-3. Tsitsipas denied Nadal that opportunity. With Nadal serving at 2-4, he had a game point, but his backhand drop volley sat up, allowing Tsitsipas to scamper forward and pass him easily. Down break point in that critical seventh game, Nadal elected to serve-and-volley, yet netted a routine backhand first volley. That was one of many errant backhand volleys from the Spaniard on a night he was singing off-key.
Nevertheless, Nadal broke Tsitsipas in the eighth game and valiantly fought off three match points at 3-5 before his nerves surfaced again. Tsitsipas came through 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. Inexplicably, Nadal was broken three times in the first set and three more times in the final set. Although Nadal was confronting a potential world No. 1 and a fearless adversary in Tsitsipas, his larger battle was with himself. He was dismayed by falling short against the charismatic Greek player. Nadal had triumphed 6-2, 6-1 in the 2018 Barcelona final over Tsitsipas in the spring, and had won 6-2, 7-6 (4) in the final of Toronto over the summer. At the 2019 Australian Open in the first major semifinal for Tsitsipas, Nadal overwhelmed his adversary 6-2, 6-4, 6-0.
That was a primary reason why Nadal was so perturbed about this latest loss. Tsitsipas is irrefutably a surging player with large possibilities ahead, but how did he make such a sweeping turnaround against an accomplished rival? To be sure, Tsitsipas put on a sterling performance, but to a larger degree Nadal beat himself. He was not up to par at the net. His forehand was not doing nearly enough damage. His serve was unproductive. He did not control the backcourt battlefield the way he had so ruthlessly in his three previous outings against the Greek competitor. And he simply tightened up immensely despite playing in front of a fervent home crowd on his favorite surface.
So what are we to make of all this? Historically, Nadal has been the dominant player on the European red clay en route to Roland Garros ever since he claimed his first major there in 2005. In that season, he won three tournaments in a row on his way to Paris. From 2006-2013, he always won at least two and usually three clay court tournaments on the path to the French Open. In 2014, he took only one clay title before Paris but still was victorious when it counted.
A year later, Nadal made only one final in four clay court tournaments prior to Paris, and then suffered only his second loss ever at the slow-court shrine, bowing out against Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. In 2016, he took two clay titles in Europe before a wrist injury forced him to default in the third round at Roland Garros. But the old and essential Nadal was back in form over the course of the 2017 and 2018 clay-court campaigns, winning three of the four tournaments he played coming into Paris in each of those seasons. He then was unbeatable at Roland Garros, claiming his tenth and eleventh titles.
This week in Rome will be very consequential for Nadal. He sounded upbeat on Monday after arriving in Rome and had seemingly left his latest setback behind him. He told the media, “Sometimes winning a title or not doesn’t make a big difference. I didn’t win a title this year. It’s true I missed a couple of tournaments. At the same time it’s true that when I was playing, I was close to winning it. I didn’t play good enough to win, but I didn’t play very bad. I am there. I have been in four semifinals in a row since Indian Wells. But that’s it. That’s tennis. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.”
The statement Nadal makes on the court in Italy will matter much more than any words he releases. It is hard to imagine that he will be satisfied with anything less than a final round showing in Rome, and the view here is that he needs to win that Masters 1000 tournament, for the ninth time, to put himself in good stead for Roland Garros. Nadal is right that he is not playing badly, although he made it abundantly clear how dissatisfied he was with how he performed against Fognini in Monte Carlo and Tsitsipas in Madrid. But he has yet to approach the sparkling form that carried him through the last two French Opens at the cost of only one set. He has not been even remotely close to that level for a sustained stretch of matches this season.
Regardless of what happens in Rome this week—he opens his campaign there tomorrow against Jeremy Chardy, and if all goes according to plan would meet Thiem in a crucial quarterfinal, Federer or Tsitsipas in the semifinals and perhaps Djokovic in the title round—Nadal will still be regarded by many authorities as the favorite to win his twelfth French Open.
The Spaniard’s career mastery on clay has been unequalled by anyone on another surface. He has played at Roland Garros 14 times, losing only to Robin Soderling in 2009 and to Djokovic in 2015. Who can argue with that kind of success? But the fact remains that he has not been himself in 2019. The seeds of self-doubt have been planted in his mind. The worries have lingered. The Spaniard himself has been his own worst critic.
And yet, he has the chance this week to make amends, boost his morale and capture his first title of 2019 on the Italian clay. How he fares in Rome may well determine whether or not this incomparable lefty will be unstoppable once more at Roland Garros. No one has a better understanding of what is at stake this week than Rafael Nadal, but at the moment he is struggling inordinately with a wounded psyche. It will be a tall task for this indefatigable warrior to reestablish his supremacy this season on a surface where he has always done his finest work.