It was nice to see new faces winning titles on clay this past week with Kei Nishikori emerging a surprise champion in Barcelona and Grigor Dimitrov triumphing in Bucharest – both enjoying maiden success on the red dirt.
But the Rafael Nadal loyalists are gravely concerned about the world No1’s French Open prospects after he suffered uncharacteristic early exits in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona – two tournaments he has won a combined 16 times.
These are losses the Spaniard had not experienced in 10 years which makes the widespread panic amongst his fan club understandable, but here are a few reasons why Nadal could still extend his reign in Roland Garros in June:
Nadal is a gladiator at heart. His fighting instincts kick in when he’s down and he tends to bring out his best when his back is against the wall. Like many champions, he’s goal-oriented and right now, his number one goal is to retain his aggressive form to turn around this European clay season.
In his own words, the key in such circumstances is to “accept the situation and keep fighting”. It’s what he does best.
He remains the best mover on clay. Nadal’s rivals may say his strongest assets are his mental strength and fighting qualities but on clay, the Mallorcan’s magic comes from his supreme movement.
If he’s not injured, then Nadal will always have the edge in terms of movement and court coverage on the dirt.
There’s still time. With both Madrid and Rome coming up before Paris, Nadal has a couple of chances to boost his confidence prior to Roland Garros.
While Madrid is his least successful clay Masters 1000 (he’s only won it twice), and he repeatedly admitted he struggles sometimes with the altitude there, Rome will provide an important opportunity for the 27-year-old. Of course the fact that he’s won it seven times couldn’t hurt.
Despite the Barcelona loss, he’s improving. Those who watched both of Nadal’s defeats in Monte Carlo to David Ferrer and in Barcelona to Nicolas Almagro can attest to the fact that the world No1 was playing significantly better against the latter.
He was more aggressive and was more effective with his forehand than against Ferrer. It didn’t amount to a win but it showed there’s progress.
If it’s mental, it’s fixable. Nadal concedes that his Australian Open final loss to Stanislas Wawrinka has affected him mentally. It’s not the first time the Spaniard has had his confidence shaken. He lost six consecutive finals to Novak Djokovic in 2011 (and a seventh in 2012) but still managed to take Roland Garros and eventually stopped the bleeding against the Serb in Monaco the following year.
If he can find a way out of his mental lapse and revisit his tactics against top players with superior backhands, he should be fine in best-of-five matches in Paris.