The European clay season has just one stop remaining before the French Open, and the following is absolutely true: With wins in Munich and Madrid, Andy Murray has won more titles on clay this week than Rafael Nadal has all season long.
Mind you, Murray had never even taken a clay title at the ATP level before the Munich event, and now can say he beat the greatest clay courter of all time in a clay Masters 1000 final – in his own country, nonetheless. The Scot’s 6-3, 6-2 victory in Sunday’s Madrid final was not the end result of a virtuoso performance by any means. Murray was very solid, and employed appropriate tactics for the occasion. The thumping scoreline, however, was not as indicative of how well Murray played, but of how dismal Rafael Nadal’s level was.
Comparing Nadal’s showing in the Sunday final to his form in the semifinal over Tomas Berdych the day before boggles the mind. On Saturday, after a tough first set that saw Nadal peak at the right time in the tiebreaker, the nine-time French Open champion rolled over Berdych in the second, providing his compatriots in the stands with a jaw-dropping array of blistering forehands. This was the Rafael Nadal of old, the man who could do pretty much anything he wanted on a tennis court equipped with the crushed brick. Sure, Berdych was his usually disappointing self against the elite; more often than not the Czech set up his own demise with poor tactical choices. But few could argue against the feeling that for the first time in this clay season, we finally caught a glimpse of the supreme ruler of Roland Garros.
All of that came to a screeching halt as soon as the Madrid final started. To say Nadal was a shadow of his semifinal self would be kind. He won only two points in the first three games, and never could get out of the hole he dug for himself so early in the match. The second set started off in even worse fashion, as Nadal fell behind 0-4 after a display that made one wonder if a club hack had taken control of the Spaniard’s body. There really wasn’t a shot Nadal couldn’t find a way to bungle.
It had to be absolutely disorienting for a man who’s achieved so much to not have control over any part of his game. In his press conference following the loss, he articulated this explanation:
Rafa said his backhand was the biggest problem today, and when it failed it “pulled down” the rest of his game.
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) May 10, 2015
Regardless of whether the backhand was the crack that broke the dam, it’s impossible to argue that the dam didn’t break. The forehand was a knock-off version of its semifinal level. The serve wasn’t really giving Nadal any kind of edge. And in terms of returning serve, a simple stat tells the sad story: Nadal managed to win just 19 percent of points played with Murray’s second delivery (a notorious weakness in the Scot’s game). As a frame of reference, Nadal averages 55 percent of 2nd serve return points won for his entire career.
While it might be tempting to write the Madrid final as a one-off, the events in Madrid are not an isolated incident. This year marks the first time since Nadal’s incredible rise to the elite of men’s tennis back in 2005 that he arrives to the last Masters 1000 on his favorite surface without winning at least one of the first two clay events of that stature. Even two weeks ago in Barcelona, a smaller but revered event for Spanish tennis that Nadal has won eight times, he suffered a shock defeat in his second match there against perpetual underachiever Fabio Fognini.
In a telling fact of what kind of season this has been for Rafael Nadal, this was the second time he lost to the Italian in 2015. On clay, no less.
Yesterday’s performance can indeed draw some parallels with that shocker against Fognini in Barcelona. Nadal was abject in both, though against Fognini he was at least up a break three different times in the second set, though he ended up losing it anyway in a tiebreaker. Nadal was brutally honest afterwards: he called his game “vulgar,” and the performance caused the dismissal of a new racquet that the Spaniard had surprisingly started using at the very beginning of the European clay season a month ago in Monte Carlo.
The question on many people’s mind after Barcelona remains: What is going on with Rafael Nadal? Are the issues psychological? Is his mind putting a brake on his body, or is it the other way round? Will a good win make all the doubts disappear? That seemed to be the promise after the Berdych match, yet it proved not to be the case.
What is refreshing is hearing Nadal discuss his issues during press conferences, and seem as concerned as everyone else in the tennis world. He gives the impression that he’s more or less in the same position as we are: looking for answers. It’s just that there are so many questions.
What jumps out from his performances since his comeback is an ongoing issue of shot quality, particularly on the backhand side. The 28 year old has found it difficult to get any semblance of depth with that shot all season. As a consequence, opponents have been able to force Nadal into short backhands that can be attacked with less risk, and pose very little menace on their own. Playing with no depth at the highest level of tennis is like playing soccer after losing a player to a red card: sure, you’re not guaranteed to lose, but the odds are definitely against you.
The lack-of-depth drama has also infected the forehand, though it’s been harder to determine what’s going to happen from match to match with that stroke. It can produce some fabulous winners, and push opponents back behind the baseline like the good ol’ days. But that glorious shot can also become a consistent producer of short balls, and even worse, a random generator of unforced errors and shanks.
The Rome Masters 1000 event begins today in the Italian capital, and the French Open starts in less than two weeks. Nadal said he’ll “die trying to reach the level achieved against Berdych,” but the clock is ticking. Not only that, but the aura of invincibility he built on clay over a decade has taken a beating. The sharks are out, and the biggest shark of all, Novak Djokovic, will show up in Rome rested and refreshed after skipping Madrid, ready for his final push towards that elusive French Open title he’s been chasing for so long.
Can Nadal find his game in time? Will this be the first season since 2004 in which he fails to win any of the big clay events? Or will all of this seem incredibly silly after the Manacor native chomps into the Coupe des Mousquetaires for the tenth time at the end of this year’s French Open? Every outcome is in play.
After all, Andy Murray had zero clay titles a week ago. Look where he is now.