Every year (since 2011), the chatter builds before the French Open: This is Novak Djokovic’s year. This is the year Rafael Nadal fails to win Roland Garros.
Every year, Nadal gathers himself and his resources — no matter how many setbacks he suffers in the month of May — and conquers Paris in early June.
It’s a rite of spring in tennis circles: Nadal gets doubted. Nadal — who loves being doubted — digs deep. Nadal wins the French. It’s been both amusing and a little depressing to see so many people question Nadal’s standing as the French Open favorite the past few years (HOW CAN YOU DOUBT THIS MAN ON CLAY?), only for Rafa to maintain his rightful place as the best clay-court tennis player we’ll ever see on God’s red earth.
If Nadal was going to be doubted a few weeks before the French Open, he needed to encounter a turn of events dire enough to suggest that he won’t be able to climb the mountain this time.
Does Sunday’s 6-3, 6-2 loss to a transformed Andy Murray in the final of the 2015 Mutua Madrid Open count?
There was no Novak Djokovic at this event. Roger Federer bowed out early, taken out by Nick Kyrgios in a beautifully-played final-set tiebreaker. In the semifinals, Murray took out the man who outplayed Nadal for most of the 2014 Madrid final, Kei Nishikori. In the quarterfinals, Nishikori removed David Ferrer — Nadal’s opponent in the 2013 French Open final — from the draw.
In past years, this would have been Nadal’s tournament, given the series of opponents he played. Sure, he made the final at this event, but Nadal has built a career on finishing in first place on red dirt, even in a city (Madrid) whose playing surface he’s rarely been particularly fond of. Given the multiple thrashings Nadal has dealt to Murray in French Open semifinals, and given the fact that Nadal had never lost to Murray on clay, the 14-time major champion had to be considered the pre-match favorite. When you also realize that:
A) Nadal had several hours more rest than Murray, due to playing a day semifinal while his opponent played a nighttime semi;
B) that Murray had to play two matches in one day (on Thursday), after playing a Monday final in a lower-tier tournament in Munich…
… Rafa should have been able to wear down Murray.
Not only did Nadal fail to beat Murray; he let him off the hook, the last kind of thing Nadal normally does against anyone, especially on crushed red brick. Routine Rafa errors — some of them by large margins — in crucial scoreboard situations repeatedly made their way into this match. What made them more conspicuous is that they frequently flew from the forehand wing which has seen Nadal through so many successful rallies against exasperated adversaries.
These are Nadal’s signature shots on clay:
First, the down-the-line forehand into the opponent’s deuce corner, a viciously whipped shot with so much spin that an opponent has to read the shot well in advance in order to get to the ball and keep it in the court.
Second is the defensive topspin retrieval forehand from the ad corner, typically looped crosscourt to the high backhand side of his opponent. It is the one shot Roger Federer failed to solve on clay. It’s the shot Novak Djokovic — with his two-handed backhand — has been able to gobble up at times in the Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, seeing the Serb through periods of success against his great rival.
Nadal’s proficiency in hitting the forehand from both offensive (or neutral) and defensive positions has enabled him to thwart every clay-court challenge that has come his way. Sliding into shots while forcing foes to hit more pressure-packed groundstrokes has enabled Nadal to outlast — and occasionally out-blast — the competition.
Against Murray, though, the forehand just didn’t materialize. Murray started the match like a house on fire, torching Nadal in the first three games and taking control of the first set. Yet, over the next few games, the Scot lost his previously high level of play. Vintage Nadal resurfaced on a point here and a point there; it seemed that the real Rafa was going to bust through and make a comeback. Just when Nadal was on the cusp of turning around the match, however, his groundies — especially that once-trusty forehand — abandoned him.
It’s not that Rafa lost — Murray was good enough to beat a B-level version of Nadal in this match. What should concern Nadal fans — and what should make Djokovic the favorite in the French Open, at last — is the way Nadal lost. There’s nothing wrong with losing a match when you make your opponent earn it at every turn. In this match, Nadal tried hard and worked hard, but the regularity of his errors allowed Murray to get off easily, all things considered. That’s an alarming reality for Nadal to contemplate, and it lends quite a lot of credence to the notion that he’s in a worse place compared to the aftermath of Monte Carlo in April, when Nadal truly did force Djokovic to earn every ounce of a deceptively close 6-3, 6-3 victory in the semifinals.
If Nadal is losing instead of building momentum (and form, and confidence) in the clay season, that’s trouble.
What’s also trouble is that as a result of this loss, Nadal has to win the Rome Masters (in which Djokovic is playing) to have any possible chance of getting a No. 4 seed at the French Open, which would guarantee no meeting with Djokovic or Murray until the semifinals. If Nadal doesn’t win Rome, he’ll be seeded in the 5-8 range, with either Kei Nishikori or Tomas Berdych getting the fourth seed. (Milos Raonic won’t play Rome due to injury; his status for the French Open is doubtful, but no final announcement has been made yet.)
If Nadal has to play Nishikori or Murray in the quarterfinals and then the other in the semis, he would be dog-tired come the finals against Djokovic… if he even gets there. Rafa isn’t just a player lacking form at the moment; this loss to Murray means Nadal is likely to face a much tougher draw.
“The Citadel” that is Roland Garros, where Nadal is 66-1, has so regularly offered comfort to the Mallorcan legend after a bumpy ride in the claycourt Masters 1000 season. It might be hard for Nadal to attain that same comfort zone this season, and that’s why everything really and truly does feel different in 2015.
Let’s be sure to give credit where credit is due, too: Murray and coach Amelie Mauresmo have made substantial forward strides, now that Murray is once again the picture of health and wholeness following a 2014 season spent dealing with the aftereffects of back surgery.
What might have seemed to be a failing partnership without breakthrough results was mostly a matter of waiting through injuries and being able to ride out the storm. Murray has done that — not only by winning this event, but by winning his first two clay tournaments in the span of a week. The Scotsman also won two matches in the same calendar day twice in a period of six days — the first instance being in Munich on May 2, the second instance being on Thursday in Madrid.
It has always been odd that Murray has struggled on clay. His patience, his defense, and his strong two-handed backhand have equipped him to be a first-rate endurance man. Yet, Murray’s weakness with his sometimes-slappy forehand is what has gotten him into trouble. Now, with a lot more conviction in his strokes and his game falling into place, Murray can reasonably be viewed as a player who is likely to make the semifinals at the French Open. If Murray can get the right draw, he could make his first French Open final.
So much of the lead-up to the French Open is annually dominated by questions surrounding Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The fact that Nadal night be seeded outside the top four is surprising enough, but in the final analysis, Andy Murray being a legitimate threat to win the French Open is the story that might be harder for the human mind to adequately comprehend.