Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 15 December 2019

Debate: Is Rafael Nadal's reign as the King of Clay finally over?

The greatest clay court player in history has looked unusually fallible this season as he looks to return to top form in time for the French Open

Rafael Nadal is aiming to win title No 6 at the Madrid Open this week after failing to reach a clay court final so far this season. Getty Images
Rafael Nadal is aiming to win title No 6 at the Madrid Open this week after failing to reach a clay court final so far this season. Getty Images

It has been an uncharacteristically underwhelming start to the European clay court swing for Rafael Nadal and there are suggestions his time as the undisputed king of clay could be coming to an end. But is too soon to be writing off the 11-time French Open champion? Sports editor Graham Caygill and Assistant sports editor Jon Turner debate.

Graham Caygill - Nadal's overall form a concern

It is perhaps too early to press the panic button, but Nadal's clay form has to be a concern for him and his camp.

The 11-time French Open champion has looked strangely off colour and his semi-final losses in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona, to Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem respectively, were noticeable for how one-sided they were.

But it is not just the defeats themselves that stand out: Nadal has lost before at those events and been fine at Roland Garros.

Back in 2014 he lost in the quarter-finals in Monte Carlo to David Ferrer and then in the last eight in Barcelona to Nicolas Almagro, yet was still standing tall on Court Philippe Chatrier a few weeks later after beating Novak Djokovic in the final.

That said, he also lost early at both events in 2015 and was beaten in Paris that year by Djokovic, so his struggles should not automatically be expected to simply iron themselves out.

As said it is not just the two losses that are a concern, but his overall form.

It looked like business as usual in Monte Carlo when he thrashed Roberto Bautista Agut for the loss of just two games in his opening match.

But he was troubled by Grigor Dimitrov and then had to come back from a double break down in the first set of the quarter-finals against Guido Pella before winning 7-6, 6-3.

The world No 2 was comprehensively beaten in the semi-finals by Fognini, however, with only a late resurgence preventing him from being bageled in the second set as he lost 6-4, 6-2.

It was the same in Barcelona. Nadal dropped the first set in his opening match to world No 62 Leonardo Mayer, was troubled in the quarter-finals by No 51 Jan-Lennard Struff, but then was well beaten by Thiem in the last four.

Losing to Thiem is not something new. The Austrian was the only man to beat Nadal on clay in 2017 and 2018, but both years they also played at the French Open and it was the Spaniard who emphatically won on those occasions.

Nadal has been sluggish, slow to get into matches, and appears to be struggling to find the rhythm that has made him so dominant on clay.

Arguably he was fortunate to make it as far as he did in both Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Certainly Pella, Mayer and Struff will all have regrets at not getting a win over the greatest clay court player in history.

Nadal had not played for a month before Monte Carlo after withdrawing from Indian Wells in March with a knee injury. Whether that is still troubling him, or Nadal is wary of it and is pacing himself ahead of the French Open starting on May 26, is not clear.

Nadal was injury-hit in 2018 yet still only lost four times and two of those were due to mid-match retirements.

This season, he has lost four times already and has lost as many matches on clay this year as he did in 2017 and 2018 combined.

Nadal needs a strong showing in Madrid to persuade the likes of Thiem, Djokovic and Roger Federer that a rare opportunity to be champion at Roland Garros is not in the offing.

Jon Turner - Nadal will peak at French Open

Rafael Nadal's slow start to the clay court swing can be put down to injury and he should be close to top form at the French Open, if not before. Getty Images
Rafael Nadal's slow start to the clay court swing can be put down to injury and he should be close to top form at the French Open, if not before. Getty Images

When standards are set so incomparably high, it's only natural for doubts to be raised when those standards are not met.

Such has been the ludicrous success of Nadal on clay for the past 15 years that the slump experienced so far this season has inevitably led to concerns that the great Spaniard's time at the top could well be over.

Not only did Nadal fail to win the Monte Carlo Masters or Barcelona Open - he is an 11-time champion at both events - but he didn't even reach the final and was thoroughly outplayed in the semi-finals, first by Fabio Fognini and then Dominic Thiem.

But some context is required and Nadal, fitness-permitting, should be fully up-and-running if not at the Madrid Open then certainly by the time Roland Garros comes around at the end of the month.

Let's not forget, prior to Monte Carlo, Nadal had been struggling with a knee injury that forced him out of Indian Wells ahead of his semi-final against long-time rival Federer.

So after a near month-long absence, it was to be expected that Nadal might be a bit below-par in his first tournament back. Having said that, the world No 2 didn't drop a set in Monaco before facing Fognini.

In Barcelona, he started slowly - dropping his first set of the tournament to Leonardo Mayer - but after navigating his way past the Argentine was much-improved against fellow Spaniard David Ferrer.

Nadal was pushed close by German Jan-Lennard Struff in the quarter-finals and, granted, was outplayed by Thiem in the semis, but little should be read into losing against the second-best clay court player in the world.

Despite his defeat to Thiem, Nadal said he left Barcelona with plenty of positives and he should continue to improve in Madrid, where he will be aiming for title No 6. The Madrid Open may feel like a pivotal moment for Nadal and he will be determined to get back to title-winning ways in the Spanish capital.

The 17-time grand slam champion will only continue to improve as the French Open approaches and once he arrives in Paris - whether he wins a trophy in the lead-up or not - Nadal will prove once again that while his challengers may have closed the gap, he remains the undisputed master of clay.

Updated: May 5, 2019 10:26 AM

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