No surprises, Rafael Nadal is looking his usual dominating self this week on the clay in Barcelona. Through his first two matches the World No. 1 and arguably the greatest clay court player in tennis history has lost just six games crushing Daniel Gimeno-Traver yesterday then pummeling Santiago Giraldo 6-3, 6-1 today.
Rafa’s next victim is Gael Monfils who better have his best pair of Nike’s on because he’s going to be doing a lot of running tomorrow in the quarterfinals.
Rounding out the quarters – Nadal oddly plays the first on – is David Ferrer against Jurgen Melzer, the underrated Ivan Dodig vs. Feliciano Lopez and new Top 10er Nicolas Alamgro against former No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero. So it’s a great line-up if you like clay court tennis. Today, Dodig had a good win over Milos Raonic while Almagro took down Nikolay Davydenko.
But back to Nadal and the question raised in the title, will the guy lose this season on the dirt?
To me, there are two maybe three guys who can beat Nadal right now on clay straight-up (i.e., no injuries, divorces, etc). Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro and I’ll add Roger Federer, only because the Swiss has done it before.
The best way to take down Nadal is to get him after he played a lengthy match the day before, much like Federer did at Madrid (although tell that to Ferrer!). And for me, that’s the only way Federer beats him. At even strength, Nadal easily beats Federer right now on dirt. So Roger’s chances are really out of his hands.
As for Del Potro, he has the raw power to blow anyone off the court, any court, Nadal included. The question is is the Argentine who missed nine months last year back at full strength? No, especially not on clay which he hasn’t played on since 2009 – remember he missed the entire clay season last year.
Then again, in best-of-3 Del Potro could get hot enough too make this interesting but I just don’t think he can get his clay feet ready in time for Madrid or Rome or even progress in the draw far enough to meet Nadal.
And at the French, beating Nadal in best-of-five sets as I’ve said before is arguably the toughest thing to do in the sport, and I don’t think DelPo or anyone for that matter is capable of pulling that off sans some kind of ailment to Rafa.
Of course this leaves Mr. Djokovic. The undefeated Serb has yet to play match on the red and I have to wonder if this 3-4 week break maybe stops or drains the momentum he’s accrued during the first three months when players were lucky to get games let alone sets from Novak. That’s the downside and the real downside of rest. Sure it helps you recover but it can also stop your game in your tracks and bring you back down to earth.
Fortunately, Djokovic returns next week at his home event in Belgrade where he’ll have a good, home-cooked tournament with which to ease and get re-introduced to the clay season. And then onto Madrid and Rome where his real battles will take place.
If Novak can stay at the level he’s been at this year I think if he gets Nadal he’ll beat him, more likely at Rome than in front of Nadal’s faithful in Madrid. That said, part of me wonders if Nadal wins Barcelona, then wins Madrid if he even plays Rome. But we’ll have plenty of time to discuss that in the coming weeks.
Nadal hasn’t lost a clay match – 31 straight wins – since that shock loss to Robin Soderling back in 2009. He can’t keep winning on the surface, can he? At some point he’s going to get clipped again – a valiant Andy Murray had a chance last week – and I feel Novak gets him before the French.
Why? I just think Novak has the extra added confidence that will get him over the top should he meet Rafa in best-of-3. He’s been oh so close before and this year with his improved serve and new mental toughness it should give him that added edge. And if they do meet it will mean Novak’s playing well again – they can only meet in the final so Novak will have to have won 4-5 matches to reach that stage. And maybe there could be a hint at gamesmanship as well, something I will elaborate more on if we get another Nadal-Djokovic final.
Plus, if they meet in two finals – both Madrid and Rome – that gives Novak’s two cracks and he’ll get one of them!
As for Rafa, he’s playing well again but I just don’t think his serve is where it was six months ago. And more importantly, I wonder about those to crushing losses to Novak at Indian Wells and Miami – remember Rafa hunched over, out of breath in that Miami tiebreak? That looked like someone with no answers.
So I hate to bet against Rafa on the clay but I’m going do it this season and say he draws a Joker at some point in the Roland Garros lead-up. But hey Nadal fans, don’t worry, he’ll still win the French. Regardless, I think this clay season will be the most competitive we’ve seen since… well since Rafa came on to the circuit.
FRIDAY BARCELONA SCHEDULE
PISTA CENTRAL start 12:30 pm
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  G Monfils (FRA)
 J Melzer (AUT) vs  D Ferrer (ESP)
I Dodig (CRO) vs F Lopez (ESP)
 N Almagro (ESP) vs J Ferrero (ESP)
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