“Obviously today I’m not as good as I (was).” – Rafael Nadal.
“You cannot take away the past 10 years…He is still the favorite to me,” Roger Federer on Rafael Nadal.
It’s odd to think of Roland Garros as unfamiliar territory for Rafael Nadal. After all, the Spanish star has won the title nine times in his career and enters this year as defending champion. Yet the next few weeks could provide the most certainty, and uncertainty, of his career.
Nadal, who often dominates clay court events leading up to Paris, has not been in the same form as years past. Nadal so far has only won one title this year and lost in lead-up European events to the likes of Novak Djokovic (Monte Carlo), Fabio Fognini (Barcelona), Andy Murray (Madrid) and Stan Wawrinka (Rome). These unexpected losses have now placed Nadal at No. 7 in the world and will place him out of the top four seeds for this year’s French Open for the first time in his career.
For so many years, Nadal was expected to win the French Open, and he often did. He failed only once in the last decade when he lost in the fourth round to Sweden’s Robin Soderling. That remains Nadal’s only defeat in Paris and is something of a burden to Soderling who expressed in a recent interview that he would like to be known for more than just one surprise win.
While Soderling remains the answer to one of the sport’s best known trivia questions, the ultimate question remains. Can anyone else beat Rafael Nadal in a best three out of five match at Roland Garros?
Many feel that current World No.1 Djokovic, if he should meet Nadal in Paris, can. Djokovic has only lost two matches all year and has won just about every tournament he has entered including the Australian Open. Djokovic went on a similar winning streak in 2011 only to lose to Roger Federer in the semifinals of Roland Garros. While many feel this year’s French Open is Djokovic’s to lose, it will likely be a lot easier for him to win the only Grand Slam title that still eludes him either if he beats Nadal or someone gets the chance to do so first.
For so many years, Nadal was the man to beat in Paris. Now that he isn’t, many tennis observers are struggling to decide on what it all means. Tennis commentators like Chris Evert and Patrick McEnroe feel that if Nadal is not able to defend his title it could well be a devastating setback.
Others, like Jim Courier, are not even picking Nadal to do much in Paris. Instead players like Andy Murray and Kei Nishikori are getting picked as potential finalists.
Even the city of Paris, which has often held a distant if respectful opinion of Nadal ruling their tournament, are deciding to commemorate the last ten years of Nadal’s winnings. Nadal was just awarded the city’s highest honor. While there’s sincerity in the gesture, there’s also a sense that the honor feels something akin to a lifetime achievement award given to someone at the end of his career. Same for the highlight reel of memories recently posted on the tournament’s website.
While it is true that Nadal has achieved his most memorable success at the French Open, it should not be the only thing that defines his career. This year, whether he wins the title or does not, or any other year. Nadal may still own the title of “King of Clay”, but he has certainly proven that he is more than just one Grand Slam event. Nadal achieved the No. 1 ranking, won every other Grand Slam title on multiple surfaces, and still holds the most ATP Masters 1000 titles won at 27.
If Nadal fails to win this year’s French Open title, it will be notable. But it’s not like Nadal will stop playing tennis soon after. Like other players, including Federer who also once dominated the sport, the period of adjustment may yet prove fruitful in terms of overall titles won. Nothing lasts forever in sport and in life. But to simply define Rafael Nadal and his career and impact on the sport on the basis of his results at one tournament does not seem like the most obvious summary deserving of one of the sport’s great champions.