Dominant athletes are elemental, and their opponents swim against a riptide. No matter how many rivals attempt to try to break free of a champion’s reign, that dominant force almost always prevails.
Take, for example, Rafael Nadal’s play on clay courts. On the terre battue, he’s arguably been better than anyone on their best surface. During the Open Era, only one player has won a given tournament more than eight times – Nadal, who has won three clay events nine times each, including the French Open. He’s won 91 percent of his clay court matches, and prior to 2015, he defeated Top-10 rivals in 70 of 79 contests on the red dirt. Sure, Pete Sampras captured seven Wimbledon crowns and won 83 percent of his matches on the low-bouncing greenery, and 17-time Grand Slam titlist Roger Federer has earned seven major championships on grass himself, but perhaps only Martina Navratilova’s nine Wimbledon wins can match Nadal’s accomplishments.
“Rafa is by far the greatest clay court player in my generation and arguably the best of all time,” 2016 French Open entrant Brian Baker says. “Rafa always had that aura of invincibility on clay, and that could easily have an opponent thinking he had no chance to win.”
That is why Nadal’s play on clay last season was startling. The Mallorcan won just two clay court titles for the first time since 2004 and lost four of his six matches against the Top 10, with each defeat coming in straight sets.
Perhaps the most deflating came at his castle on the grounds of Roland Garros, Court Philippe Chatrier. In the past, Nadal could play somewhere between second and third gear and still Rocky Balboa his way to a win in Paris. Only one person previously beat Rafael Nadal at the French Open – Robin Soderling played a free-swinging match in 2009 to do so – but things were different last year at the clay court major.
In the quarterfinals, a familiar opponent in Novak Djokovic was across the net. Nadal had beaten the Serbian in all six of their previous matchups at the French Open, dropping only four total sets along the way. But now down to number seven in the rankings, Nadal was not the clear favorite on his court for arguably the first time since he was a teen.
The end result? 7-5, 6-3, 6-1, Djokovic.
Djokovic was the riptide, and Nadal was left treading water. For the first time since 2005, he sunk to tenth in the rankings.
“I thought that he was going to really start sliding further,” ESPN tennis analyst and former world No. 4 Brad Gilbert says.
But this year, Nadal has battled back. After returning to the top five with a strong fall season, the 29-year-old shrugged off a first round loss at the Australian Open to win 24 of his next 30 matches, with one of those losses via retirement in Miami and two more coming against Djokovic. Nadal’s 13-match winning streak during that span was his longest since 2013, when he won 22 straight to reclaim the Number One ranking. Nadal was second in the 2016 year-to-date rankings until last week in Rome, when Andy Murray crept ahead by virtue of winning the ATP Masters 1000 tournament, defeating Djokovic 6-3, 6-3 in the final.
“Rafa is starting to play better and better, winning Monte Carlo, Barcelona, even the way he played in Madrid,” Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob says. “I think he’s very close to being exactly where he needs to be in order to try and win his tenth French Open. He’s hitting his backhand better, he’s taking it earlier, his court position is better, his forehand is more explosive. He’s playing more relaxed and more energetic.”
And yet, despite his renaissance, it seems Nadal will need a Herculean effort to stand a chance this French Open fortnight (his fight begins Tuesday against hard-hitting Australian Sam Groth). After all, Djokovic has won four out of the last five Grand Slams, and it looks like he will be the obstacle in Nadal’s path, as the Serbian continues to play for the only major title he’s yet to capture.
“Novak’s the biggest impediment to Rafa winning the French by far,” Gimelstob says. “I can foresee him beating every other player, but it’s tough to imagine him beating Djokovic best-out-of-five based on the matchup and the recent history.”
It took Djokovic seven tries to finally defeat Nadal in Paris last year, but since then the rivalry has been one-sided. Including that match, Djokovic has won 11 of their last 12 clashes, the one loss coming in the semifinals of the 2014 French Open. The worst of those defeats came four months ago in Doha. In a 6-1, 6-2 loss, Nadal won the second-fewest number of games in a completed match in his career.
“I played against a player who did everything perfect,” Nadal said after the match. “I know nobody playing tennis like this ever. I never saw somebody playing at this level.”
It’s not necessarily that the left-hander has fallen off drastically – it’s that Djokovic has risen dramatically.
“Rafa had a fall off and now he’s coming back. He’s not at an apex where he was, but part of that is where Djoker has lifted his game,” Gilbert says. “I’ve seen Rafa at genius level, I’ve seen Federer at a genius level, I’ve seen Pete [Sampras], Andre [Agassi], everybody since the Seventies. And to me, when Djoker’s on, he’s the most complete player I’ve ever seen.”
Murray beat Djokovic in Rome to end the Serb’s eight-match winning streak against the top-five, and then-No. 55 Jiri Vesely even found a way to beat the top seed in Monte Carlo earlier in the year. But there still seems to be no doubt that Djokovic is the “Big One” in men’s tennis.
“It’s just a very prohibitive matchup stylistically and pattern-wise,” Gimelstob says of Nadal’s chances against Djokovic. “There are players who aren’t as good as Rafa, or are as dangerous to win the French that maybe can upset Djokovic, who Rafa can then beat. But in terms of the matchup, Rafa versus Novak, it’s just very problematic for him.”
Again, this is not about Nadal slipping away, although his level is not where it once was. The tour is getting better, and anything short of perfection is not good enough anymore.
“Either you’re getting better or you’re losing ground,” Gimelstob says. “The one area that I see that has regressed significantly is Rafa’s serve, and that’s particularly an issue when he plays Djokovic or Murray.”
From 2010 to 2013, when Nadal won his two US Opens, he captured 68 percent of his service points. Against Djokovic, he won 60 percent of points on serve. Nadal has captured only 64 percent of them against the entire tour this year – and since the start of 2014, he has won just 56 percent of his service points against the best player in the world.
So while Nadal is winning more and playing better tennis, it still feels like he has catching up to do. In Rome, Nadal arguably played his best match against the top seed since beating him a couple of years ago at the French Open, yet still fell 7-5, 7-6.
“Any time in a head to head when it starts getting lopsided one way like that, it’s hard not to think about it,” Gilbert says. “The press brings it up, it’s out there. You know it, everybody knows it and so that’s why I’m sure that [loss] was a tough one.”
The Rome match showed that the disparity between the two is narrowing. The question is, can Nadal break through at the French?
And even independent of Djokovic, winning the French will not be easy. Murray and defending champion Stan Wawrinka are in the field, each with multiple Grand Slam titles to their name. With young prospects such as Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem raising their level of play and rising quickly, time may be running out for Nadal.
Rafa could also face Fabio Fognini, who has beaten him twice on clay and also at last year’s US Open, in the third round. Thiem may be next, and the 13th-seeded Austrian has already beat Nadal on clay this year. A meeting with sixth-seeded Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could come in the quarterfinals in front of his home crowd.
And if he survives all that, Nadal could draw Djokovic in the semifinals, where he will once again attempt to swim against the riptide. He’ll turn 30 before the end of the tournament, and this may be his best show to win at Roland Garros again. No one said it would be easy. Overcoming the elements never is.
“I do think Nadal is playing dramatically better than 9-12 months ago, and I think that he will finish the year in the top three,” Gilbert says. “Priority number one, I’m sure he would tell you, is finding a way to beat Djoker once in 2016. Obviously winning a Slam, too, but I think that finding a way to beat him would be just as big.”