ABOVE: Rafael Nadal's footwork, like you've never seen it before (ASMR)

BELOW: As we approach the start of the new tennis season, we'll answer 10 thought-provoking questions that may define the game in 2022.

Advertising

Every May, Rafael Nadal is a pundit’s nightmare. Predicting the winners of Grand Slam tournaments is a staple of the media diet, but over the past decade-plus it has become an exercise comparable to choir practice, with the same voices singing the same tune about Nadal dominating the French Open field, over and over. You could get a livelier discussion by asking a panel of experts if the sun was going to rise the following morning.

Jimmy Arias, the estimable Tennis Channel commentator, is an original thinker who doesn’t always subscribe to the conventional wisdom. He has seen, or thought he’s seen, “cracks in the (Nadal) armor.” He has been more reluctant than many of his peers to concede the annual title to Nadal. But, he told me recently, “Nadal proved me wrong every time. For a few years there’s been this feeling like he’s on the verge of being beatable—but then he gets to Roland Garros and he wins it.”

It was business as usual in the bureau of punditry in 2021 but, lo and behold, Nadal was upset in the semifinals by hard-charging, No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic. The Serbian star not only won the event, he would fall just one match win short of becoming just the third man in tennis history to complete a calendar-year Grand Slam.

Did Djokovic’s triumph herald the end of the era ruled by the “King of Clay”?

Rafael Nadal has been the player to beat on clay for nearly two decades.

Rafael Nadal has been the player to beat on clay for nearly two decades.

After taking that loss, Nadal played just two more matches in 2021, due to a foot injury that forced him to miss the year's final two majors. The 13-time French Open champion, now 35, serially injured and ranked No. 6, is certainly besieged, but Roland Garros has ever been his stronghold.

The swelling rate of injury affecting almost every part of Nadal’s body pops out as a red flag and is the greatest regulator of Nadal’s hopes in Paris. Since winning his first French Open in 2005, Nadal has missed nine majors, nearly all due to various ailments (foot, knees, wrist, back, left shoulder). The experts now attach the caveat “if he’s healthy” to their forecast for Nadal, but as ESPN's Patrick McEnroe told me, “The good news for Nadal is that he doesn’t seem as susceptible to injury on clay, and there’s plenty of opportunity for him to play his way into shape on that surface going into the French. So, barring injury, Rafa is absolutely the favorite to win in Paris.”

Nadal has handled his late-career struggles prudently, which is among the reasons that he may also end up missing the upcoming Australian Open. With 20 majors in hand, he’s tied with Federer and Djokovic in the Slam/GOAT derby. He is decidedly more susceptible to injury than his rivals on surfaces other than clay—especially hard courts—but Nadal also is a better bet to win another major than either Federer or Djokovic due to his unmatched prowess at Roland Garros.

Paul Annacone, the Tennis Channel commentator, told me earlier this year, only half in jest: “Rafa could win Roland Garros four or five times more and then win it four or five times after he’s retired.”

Advertising

Illustration by: Leah Goren

Illustration by: Leah Goren 

Most experts have similar feelings, which helps explain Nadal’s increasingly targeted career-management. He made his return to competitive play in December at the Abu Dhabi exhibition, losing competitive matches to Andy Murrray and Denis Shapovalov. Nadal claimed to be satisfied with his progress. He also tested positive for COVID-19 upon leaving the exhibition event, and that also impacted his planning.

Back in Spain, Nadal said he experienced some “unpleasant moments” due to the virus and told reporters that he could not commit “100 percent” to taking part in the Australian Open.

“I need to go home and see how the body responds after these days,” he said. “I have time to make a decision. At this point in my career, I need to go day by day, study each movement well."

That calculus will be impacted by Nadal’s special relationship with the terre battue. The hard courts Down Under have been hard on his body in the past, and it’s unlikely they will be more forgiving in 2020. Nadal will certainly need matches before the French Open, but he doesn’t necessarily need four-hour, best-of-five-set wars on the cusp of spring—a season that unfurls, as if by design, as a wonderful red-brick-road to Roland Garros.

The best-of-three-set format for the European spring clay tune-ups is tailor-made for a veteran who traditionally banks a lot of Ws in the spring and has more than enough experience to transition comfortably when the Grand Slam program calls for five-setters. Said Annacone, “I don't care if he doesn’t win any of the other clay events; beating Nadal best-of-five sets at Roland Garros is the hardest thing in sports—not just tennis, in sports.”

Barring injury, Rafa is absolutely the favorite to win in Paris. Patrick McEnroe

Advertising

That isn’t just hyperbole. With a mind-boggling French Open career record of 105-3, Nadal hasn’t had a lot of experience in the rebound department at Roland Garros. Defeated on wobbly knees by Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009, Nadal served up a cold dish to the Swede the following year, losing just 10 games in their final-round rematch (and no sets throughout the entire tournament).

In 2015, Nadal—in early stages of what would become his first and only notable slump—was beaten in the quarterfinals by his nemesis, Djokovic. The loss ended Nadal’s French Open winning streak, which stretched back to his loss to Soderling, at 39 matches. The following year, a wrist injury forced Nadal to pull the plug on his French Open after a third-round win. He has still never been defeated in match play in consecutive French Opens.

That span also represents the only time in his career that Nadal has gone two years without winning the French Open title. For in 2017 Nadal roared back, losing no sets and just 35 games—the second fewest total in tournament history—as he become the first player of either sex to win a single major 10 times. It heralded a four-tournament run ended last year by Djokovic.

Will this be the very first French Open at which Nadal suffers back-to-back losses on the terre battue? The pundits may be singing a different tune this coming May, but I wouldn’t bet on it.