As Rafael Nadal slogged off the court last week in Barcelona, something seemed somewhat amiss. Perhaps it was that a certain world No. 1 left town without biting down on another winner’s trophy. Gone was his 41-match win streak and a shot at a record ninth straight title in his beloved home-country tourney.
For the second straight tournament -- oh, and on clay we remind you -- Rafa was booted early. How significant is this? Since 2005, Nadal was 276-12 on clay before falling to Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. Some might say that’s pretty good.
But now after coming up short during the hard-court Masters swing in Indian Wells and Miami, and foundering on the dirt so far, for the first time in his career Nadal looks like he might have feet of clay -- or at least a foot of clay. Unless things drastically turn around in Madrid and Rome, Rafa will enter the French Open with a few question marks for the first time in a decade. Heck, Vince Spadea was more or less a relevant player the last time Nadal wasn’t considered a lock to win at Roland Garros.
With that in mind, here are some burning clay-court questions we posed to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert before the tour takes off for Madrid next week:
Concerned about Rafa?
Brad Gilbert: “Not going to say any concerns, but Nadal is about to be 28. The expectation is perfection every time, and it’s difficult to do that. Djokovic has started to play a lot better tennis and the emergence of Stan Wawrinka will be factors in Paris. And it’s just so hard to [win the French Open] a couple of times, so to do this like he does every year is amazing. I’ll just say this: Never underestimate Rafa. He’ll find another gear.”
What about the world No. 1’s confidence?
Gilbert: “He’s pretty honest in that everyone thinks he’s a machine. For him, he’s loses a couple of matches -- it’s not like he’s going to win every one and every tournament -- and he feels the pressure, but maybe that’s what makes him play better. For every good athlete, there are no guarantees, but Nadal puts in the work. There are just variables in tennis and sports we can’t control, but that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with Rafa’s game.”
Gilbert: “[Long pause] Djokovic. But Stan is the third-best player in the world -- clearly. He’s shocked me. If you had asked me about his game at the start of the season when he was No. 9, I might have said his biggest upside was only a couple of spots, but he that he might go backwards. But the biggest thing that has surprised me is how much his forehand has improved. We all talk about his backhand, but the forehand was the side that always went away. Now he’s hitting it incredibly big. He’s improved his movement quite a bit. More than anything else, his success has come at 29 years old, and he’s a much better place mentally that he’s ever been. But Djokovic has played great, and assuming his wrist is healed, he has a legit chance to win the French. And we all know how badly he wants it.”
Gilbert: “No question, Federer. I feel like Ferrer, at 32 -- I know he beat Nadal in Monte Carlo, which I still can’t believe -- will throw in a match that can surprise you. He lost in the first round of Barcelona to Teymuraz Gabashvili. I just feel that at his age, if Ferrer wakes up and isn’t feeling great, he’s beatable by less-inferior players. He will have an occasional good tournament or good win, but I don’t see him being a factor in a Slam anymore. Federer has figured out how to reinvent his game, how to handle Djokovic, which he’s done twice. He is still passionate about winning. Ferrer loves clay, but I’d put my money on Federer.”
What’s going on with Andy Murray?
Gilbert: “When he gets [to the French Open], he’ll be 27. Murray hasn’t come back from his injury and surgery like Nadal did a year ago. And Murray’s in the process of hiring a new coach. But as long as he’s healthy and starts getting matches soon, he’ll be fine. He’s too talented, and he’ll right the ship. I am not worried about him.”
Any young players catching your eye?
Gilbert: Milos [Raonic] is still young. He showed us a bit in Monte Carlo. A guy I like in the next couple of years is the Austrian, Dominic Thiem. This kid has a one-handed backhand very similar to Stan Wawrinka’s. I like his potential; he’s a string kid. Look, the Big Four wiped out an entire generation of players in the majors, but there’s talent coming.