Has any tennis player ever faced a challenge as complex and fundamentally bizarre as the one staring Rafael Nadal in the face right now? Has anyone ever stood gazing at a mountain that has been as familiar, friendly, and tractable, yet in what seems like an instant turned so forbidding, towering, and shrouded in mist?
What is sure to be the most riveting of Rafael Nadal’s 11 French Open campaigns begins this week. The nine-time champion is seeded a lowly No. 6, with tournament officials having decided that despite his numerous feats of derring-do in the 16th arrondissement, the Spaniard’s seeding would not be elevated.
Had Nadal’s decline been due to injury or some other act of God, those officials might have considered moving him up out of deference to his status as not just the defending champion, but the most prolific tennis player the red clay of court Philippe Chatrier has ever hosted. But a drastic loss of form is a cardinal offense in tennis. Nothing short of tanking matches is as disappointing to those watching as an inexplicable slump. Nadal is a sinner in the hands of an angry seedings committee.
I don’t want to be a cynic here, but does anyone else get the feeling that perhaps some of those French aesthetes were also getting a little bit sick of watching Nadal, with his roughneck game, sinking his teeth into their precious Coupe de Mousquetaires year after blessed year? If that was the case, things could not have worked out much better for that disgruntled contingent. For the draw has matched Nadal in the quarterfinals with his nemesis, and runaway world No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
The amazing thing about this tournament, most poignantly for Nadal himself, is that nobody can imagine him winning this year—yet nobody in his right mind can imagine him losing, either. Nadal is 66-1 at Roland Garros, has won this tournament nine of the last 10 years, and the last five years running. That means something. It suggests that Nadal just might be able to win this tournament even if Boris Becker and Severin Luthi kidnapped him and sawed his right leg off just above the knee on the night before his first match.
Nadal is playing some of the worst tennis of his life. There’s no question about that, even if we wipe his slow start on U.S. hard courts off the hard drive. The spring Euro-clay season has always provided Nadal an opportunity to be born again, but in Monte Carlo, he unexpectedly showed up for his first day at work with a new racquet. It was provided by his regular manufacturer, Babolat, and the frame was supposed to give him more power and spin—things Nadal has needed in roughly the same measure that Kanye West needs more mouth.
Furthermore, some of Nadal’s earliest comments on the change were, at best, puzzling: “It is true that with this new racquet probably I have less control. In theory, I get more power and topspin,” he said. “There are always risks when you change things.”
That hardly sounded like a ringing endorsement, but Nadal probably wasn’t the first man in tennis history to think he could hit his way out of what he himself had declared a slump. And if that was not his intent, what was he doing monkeying around with a new racquet while he was mired in a funk?
Either way, the idea that he could solve his problems by changing his equipment proved to be wishful thinking. He should have known better—but on the other hand, why not take a shot? It’s not like his life would be incomplete without a ninth Monte Carlo trophy. But when Nadal lost to Djokovic in the semis, and then took a loss to Fabio Fognini in Barcelona the following week, he decided enough was enough. He picked up his old racquet for the Masters event in Madrid.
The weird thing is that the old racquet appeared to react as if it actually had feelings, as if it had caught Nadal stepping out. Not only did Nadal lose the real or illusory extra power and spin that’s defined his game, he never recovered his consistency, not even on his formerly bulletproof forehand.
Still, Nadal had a decent tournament in Madrid—until Andy Murray knocked him out in straight sets in the final.
King of Clay? In that match Nadal looked more like a nervous subject, petitioning to win a point here, a point there, as his lord and master controlled the rallies and dictated from the baseline to win the title.
In Rome, Nadal had one more chance to win before Paris. And for a while, Nadal looked as if he might pull himself together and secure a confidence-boosting title that could put his rivals on notice on the eve of Roland Garros. But, as in the Madrid final, he produced an epic failure, this time in the quarterfinals against Stan Wawrinka.
Nadal is not a particularly creative player, but he found a way to lose a tiebreaker on clay from 6-2 up, and wound up surrendering the match to Wawrinka, 7-6 (7), 6-2. You can’t get much more creative than that.
So there it is. A recent history of poor choices. Baffling breakdowns. Matches in which Nadal’s groundstrokes have been falling short and his serves haven’t been finding their mark. To top it all off, even the forehand that has been the foundation of Nadal’s game has been inconstant.
The net result is that Nadal has routinely been forced to play more defensively than he likes, which has put even more strain on his already loaded nerves. After all, once you’re past the age when it’s fun just to run around for the heck of it, dashing around having to put out one small fire after another is a pretty good way to feed your anxiety, or the sense that someone is out to get you.
In the literal sense, we know just who that someone is, and the tournament is teeing Nadal up for him in the quarterfinals. What a story it would be if Djokovic, on his way to completing the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, disposed of the King of Clay. The relevant question in that regard is: Who will it benefit that the match-up occurs so early in the tournament? It’s terra incognita; the two have never met in a single-elimination tournament before the quarterfinals. But the answer seems obvious to me: Nadal.
Djokovic is, within reason, professionally obsessed with winning the French Open. And he’s always tried to do so, and thus imagined doing so, under the obvious, heroic conditions. The idea of having to meet Nadal in the quarterfinals on a Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon—and then God knows who else later on—must be difficult for Djokovic deal with. How does he pace himself? How does he peak, mentally and emotionally? How does he not get too high before, during and after?
Let’s also remember that as well as Djokovic is playing, it isn’t like Nadal has gone around the bend and ventured into Gulbisland. He’s still 15-5 on clay this year, with one title; 10-4 during the European swing, with a Masters final and semifinal under his belt. Nadal is healthy—which may be the most important point of all—he’s played some excellent matches this year, and he’s accomplished so much on Court Philippe Chatrier that he’s entitled to feel like he’s got nothing to prove.
Of course, there’s a long way to go until both men get to that quarterfinal juncture. And in the end, every man’s ascent of a Grand Slam mountain is via a different route, and none of them is particularly easy—especially not the one Nadal must take in this, his most trying year.
For more 2015 French Open coverage, go to our tournament page: