The first signs of Rafael Nadal’s gradual decline in ’14 are there for everyone to see. Of course, ‘Decline’ is a relative term, because the man has 13 Slams and a million Masters title to his name. That said, 2014 hasn’t been kind to him so far — and the magnitude of his failures have only been amplified by his performance on red dirt. This is his favorite time of the year — a portion he sweeps with great athletic abilities and gumption — and he has rarely lost a match in Clay season leading up to the French Open.
The signs were there. Many would say it was his defeat to Wawrinka in the Aussie Open Final, and some would say that the losses to Almagro and Ferrer on clay were startling reminders of Nadal’s sudden mortality on his favorite surface. Of course, despite his lean run, he still managed a Masters title (Madrid), where Federer and Murray were knocked out early and Djokovic didn’t play. But the real jolt came when he almost lost to Andy Murray last week in Rome. The semifinal was supposed to be a one-sided steamrolling, considering Murray’s coach-less career and infamous form on clay. He was also coming back from an injury. Still, he managed to take a set off Nadal in a tournament that the Spaniard had won 6 times prior to 2014. I personally remember my disbelief when I watched him dismantle Federer in last year’s final at Rome. I was glad to have watched Federer regain some form and beat opponents on the way to the final, but in hindsight, I’m fortunate to have not paid for tickets to watch that final. Nadal was in such awesome form, showing no signs of a slow recovery from his comeback. He went on to win the French Open convincingly too.
But 2014 will be a different story.
Djokovic, as we all know, has been suffering from a loss of confidence and form recently. His coach Becker is convinced that the claycourt season is the tonic he needs, but his protégé is not so sure his own body can take it. Nevertheless, Djokovic came off the bench and muscled his way through the draw in Rome, to set up a grandstand final clash with favorite Nadal. He lost the first set, just like he did to Raonic in the semifinal, but went on to rally and defeat his opponent to win his 3rd Rome title.
That is no mean feat for a guy that was contemplating giving the French Open a miss only a month ago. Federer, meanwhile, is in stay-at-home-dad mode after losing early in Rome too, and might not play in Paris to be with his newborn twins. The family man might find it even harder to make a comeback to the top 3 now, especially because he isn’t even the Swiss no. 1 anymore. Instead, it is Djokovic who has returned to haunt Nadal, and stop his progress again on the way to immortality.
Paris could very well see Nadal win his 9th title there, because as scratchy as he looks, he is still the best claycourt tennis player in the world right now. Only Ferrer and Djokovic are worthy challengers but in a best-of-5 scenario, they might come up short too. But he won’t have it easy. His opponents smell blood after he lost in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, his traditional favorites, and he looks vulnerable heading into Roland Garros.
It would be nice to see Djokovic finally win his first French Open title. He would have won atleast 3 if not for Nadal already, as he has proved himself to be the only thorn in Nadal’s clay season time and again.
But it all comes down to the Slam, and it might take a little more hesitation to pencil in Nadal as the bookies odds-on favorite this time around.