Rafael Nadal is the king of clay, but it is becoming increasingly clear he never will be on top of the throne in men’s tennis.
That means getting to No. 1 in the world, and even though Rafa is closer than ever on the computer rankings thanks to Roger Federer’s mysterious slump (fried by Fish: what gives?), his game is not good enough.
Sure, it’s a harsh assessment. We’re talking about a guy who became the first teenager to reach No. 2 since Boris Becker in 1986, a guy who has been No. 2 every week since July 25, 2005, and a guy who was a couple points and maybe one knee tweak away from stunning Federer in the Wimbledon final last year. Even off clay, Nadal has more than half the men’s field beaten before he steps on the court because of his superhuman effort level.
It’s also a realistic assessment. When Nadal cruised through Indian Wells without dropping a set last March, he and Federer appeared to be on a different planet from the rest of the tour and destined to duel in Grand Slam finals on all surfaces for years to come. Instead, the last 12 months have exposed his shortcomings, fittingly capped by his one-sided loss to the man who will be the next No. 1, Novak Djokovic, in an Indian Wells semifinal last week.
Nadal won five games in a numbingly familiar performance. He has not won a tournament off of clay since Indian Wells of 2007, and he has been shellacked repeatedly. In his last 12 hard-court events, he lost 6-3, 6-4 to Djokovic in the Key Biscayne semifinals, 7-5, 6-3 to Djokovic in the Montreal quarters, 7-6, 4-1 ret. to Juan Monaco in the second round at Cincinnati, 6-7, 6-4, 7-6, 6-2 to David Ferrer in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open, 6-1, 6-2 to David Nalbandian in the Madrid quarters, 6-4, 6-0 to Nalbandian in the Paris final, 6-4, 6-1 to Federer in the Masters’ Cup semifinals, 6-0, 6-1 to Mikhail Youzhny in the Chennai final, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open semifinals, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 to Andreas Seppi in the round of 16 at Rotterdam, 7-6, 6-2 to Andy Roddick in the Dubai quarters and 6-3, 6-2 to Djokovic at Indian Wells.
Almost every one of them was a beat-down. Coach/uncle Tony Nadal almost certainly overstated the case last year when he said Nadal’s lingering foot problems were career threatening, but his results lend credence to the notion his body cannot hold up on hard surfaces. Witness his tank job against Youzhny in Chennai a day after playing a triple-tiebreak epic with good friend and fellow Mayorcan Carlos Moya – a predictable effort for a normal player, but not the supremely fit Nadal.
Those results are not No. 1 material and are a long way from the Nadal of 2005, when he won Montreal, Beijing and Madrid on hard courts. The prevailing wisdom was he would only get better as he gained more experience on faster surfaces, but opponents have figured out his forehand is attackable on hard courts while his backhand does little damage. He winds up just as far behind the baseline as he did when he arrived on the tour, and guys like Djokovic, Youzhny, James Blake and Thomas Berdych can overpower him.
Federer, who used to struggle against Nadal on any surface, has not lost to him on anything but clay since Dubai of 2006, winning twice at Wimbledon and twice at the Masters Cup.
Grass is Nadal’s last refuge away from clay because it is easier on his body, but he will be hardpressed to get back to the Wimbledon final. His sensational run there is reminiscent of Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario’s in 1995 and 1996, when she lost two consecutive finals to Steffi Graf, coming within a few points of winning one of them.
Sanchez-Vicario never got past the semifinals again. Nadal, who won four best-of-five-set matches in as many days to reach the final in an extraordinary effort last year, may face the same fate.
Robin Soderling almost beat him in the third round of Wimbledon last year but lacked the self-confidence. Youzhny waxed him for two sets before waning with a leg injury in the round of 16. Barely trying, Djokovic still won the first set of his Wimbledon semifinal with Nadal last year before retiring in the third set. Djokovic is much tougher mentally now and matches up extremely well with Rafa on grass with his serve, power and movement.
Without Wimbledon, Nadal would be a one-surface Grand Slam contender. He never has gone past the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, and his destruction at the hands of Tsonga on the new Australian Open hard courts bode poorly for him there.
If he finally discards his No. 2 ranking, it will be in the wrong direction. At some point this year, Djokovic should pass him, and then he will be looking up at two players with more ability than he possesses, one of whom is a year younger.
Granted, Nadal is only 21. Normally, it would be absurd to consider someone that young a finished product, but he is an abnormal player. His game requires so much physical exertion that his body is older than his linear age.
With three Roland Garros titles in three appearances and a series of stupendous streaks, he is well on his way to becoming the best clay-court player in men’s tennis history. Just don’t count on that legacy including a single week as the top player in the world.
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