By Sandra Harwitt
Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m starting to get worried about the future – at least the immediate future of Rafael Nadal.
Only last week I was saying that his 6-3, 6-3 semifinal loss to world No. 1 Novak “No one can beat me” Djokovic shouldn’t make Nadal fans unduly nervous. After all, even as recently as last spring Djokovic defeated Nadal at Rome, but couldn’t get the better of the King of Clay in the French Open final.
But, after suffering his second defeat this year to Fabio Fognini in Barcelona – a 6-4, 7-6 (6) third round loss on Thursday – one has to wonder if Rafa will ever be Rafa again.
Last year’s right wrist injury kept Nadal off court for three months after Wimbledon. Then his bout with appendicitis that llimited him to only two tournaments in the fall before undergoing surgery ended his season.
In the past, Nadal, gritty and determined, came back from inury interruptions even stronger, proving his awe-inspiring relevancy in the game. But this year it isn’t turning out to be the same case. He’s 18-6 in the win-loss department with his lone title coming on clay at Buenos Aires in February.
It wasn’t just my opinion that Nadal would get going when the clay season ran around. It was also Nadal’s belief – or maybe just his hope of hopes. He told me such during the first week of the year at the Qatar ExxonMobil Open. While he wasn’t throwing in the towel regarding the Australian Open, or the American hard court season, he was very clear that what is always most important to him was when the tour went Euro for the red clay spring. No surprise considering his record nine French Open titles – in his 10 years playing Roland Garros he’s lost one match – a fourth-rounder in 2009.
Only 28-years-old, with a number of good years ahead if he can stay healthy, it seemed entirely possible that Nadal’s current 14 Grand Slam titles could grow to equal – or surpass – Roger Federer’s record 17 titles at the major. Now the idea of Nadal touching Fed’s record is looking less plausible. But what makes this factor more astonishing is that it isn’t Nadal’s physicality that is threatening his positioning in the game. It’s his mindset.
At the Miami Open, after his three-set, third round loss to countryman Fernando Verdasco, Nadal admitted he’s playing scared. He said he’s nervous – confused – on points. He just doesn’t feel he can sense what will happen next on a point. That kind of statement from a guy who played tennis like a chess master who knew how a point would play out three strokes from when he was currently hitting the ball was raw and unnerving, and also brutally honest.
Can Nadal find his way? The tennis world certainly should be hoping so as his presence on the tour makes the game a better place. But as the French Open looms only four weeks away he’s going to need to get his head in gear – and fast. In Miami he said he would be dealing with his fragile mental state on his own – no sports psychologist needed.
One factor that will make Nadal’s path even more difficult is that Djokovic is looking even more untouchableby with every day that passes. He’s fit, he’s confident and he’s been virtually unbeatable. An he really likes the way that scenario feels.
There’s nothing more that Djokovic wants in this world than to complete his set of Grand Slam trophies with a French Open title. Most would probably agree that only the “real” Nadal, the dominator of clay, could stop Djokovic’s quest for a French Open title. But with only a month to go before the tennis world descends on Paris, Nadal has little time to get his head together. It just could be too big of an ask, especially if Nadal insists on relying on self-analysis.