Rafael Nadal usually begins licking his chops right about now, as the clay-court season fast approaches. The segment probably never has looked better to the struggling “King of Clay” than it does right now.
Nadal was beaten Sunday at the Miami Open, where he was seeded No. 2. He was taken down by a 31-year-old fellow Spaniard, lowly No. 29 seed Fernando Verdasco, 6-4, 2-6, 6-3. Nadal had beaten Verdasco the first 13 times they met, but that turned out to be Verdasco’s lucky number: He has now beaten Nadal the last two times they’ve met.
Nadal is still a respectable 15-5 on the year -- “respectable,” that is, for someone not named Nadal. And in truth, the 28-year-old, 14-time Grand Slam champion has been snakebit throughout his career in Miami. He’s the only member of the vaunted Big Four who never won on Key Biscayne.
But here’s the really troubling stat: While Nadal has already won a title (Buenos Aires, on his beloved clay), he has played only two top-10 players thus far this year. No. 7 Tomas Berdych beat him in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and No. 6 Milos Raonic bounced Nadal in the quarterfinals of Indian Wells.
In theory, Nadal will return to the clay and find his game as he generally does every year. But it may not be as easy to turn theory into practice this year. Nadal missed a good portion of the back end of 2014 with a wrist injury and an appendicitis. He has had plenty of time to get his game sorted out over the past few months, but it hasn’t happened yet. It isn’t about forehands and backhands now; it’s about his confidence and the pressure he feels if it isn’t at an adequate level.
Nadal is both realistic and honest about his situation. “It’s not the question of tennis,” he told reporters after this latest setback. “The thing is the question of being enough relaxed to play well.”
Nadal went on to say that, a month or six weeks ago, he felt he didn’t have the game to generate great results. But while his game has improved in the interim, his comfort level has not -- even though he’s practicing well and generally feeling fit. It was once impossible to talk about Nadal choking, but lately he has been choking -- and leading the parade of pundits batting around the issue. He admitted, “Still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, in important moments, still playing a little bit anxious.”
Press conferences with players who are struggling often become like therapy sessions -- at least they do when the player in question is open to sharing his thoughts and emotions at a difficult time with a roomful of strangers. Nadal has become a master at this, and it never, ever comes off as spin or as oversharing. His session following the loss to Verdasco -- a guy who, while something of a head case, can certainly whale on the ball -- was noteworthy for the candor and clarity.
Nadal’s year began with a loss in the first round of Doha to No. 127 Michael Berrer. He said that his anxiety at the beginning of the year was nothing unusual. He put it this way: “I am not saying that [choking] didn’t happen in the past, because it happened. But it happened for a very small, for one point, two points. I have been able to control my emotions during, let’s say 90 percent, 95 percent of the matches in my career -- something that today is tougher, to be under self-control.”
It’s funny how a guy can admit he has been choking and can’t handle the anxiety of a close match yet still come off as being on top of his situation. Nadal may be losing and he may be struggling, but he doesn’t appear to be floundering, clutching at straws or fooling himself. If anything, that may make him more dangerous as the clay-court season gets underway.
“It the next thing for me,” he said of the upcoming tournaments. “I am excited. I am enough motivated to keep working hard, and that’s what I gonna do. The tournaments that are coming are historically good tournaments for my game, good tournaments for my confidence.”
At his age and with his résumé, Nadal has no pressing need to worry about ranking points, ATP Masters Series titles or his head-to-head with fellow top-10 players. He may not have all the time in the world -- a subpar clay-court season would certainly complicate his situation. But as his clay-court proficiency shows, Nadal is patient, hard-working and determined.
“I gonna fix it,” he promised. “I don’t know if in one week, in six months or in one year. But I gonna do it.”
The King of Clay is not the kind of ruler to abdicate. If you want his throne, Novak, Roger and Andy, you’d better be ready for an epic struggle to take it.