This is all Rafael Nadal’s fault, of course. If he had not been superhuman on clay for the last decade, tennis analysts would not be twisting themselves into knots trying to determine the hows and whys of his barren April.
Clay — unless it is colored blue — has been Nadal’s supreme medium since he manhandled Andy Roddick in the Davis Cup final in Seville, Spain, as an 18-year-old in 2004.
Ten years later, the doubts are starting to swirl like dust on a blustery day at Roland Garros. After winning 10 titles in 2013, Nadal has won two in 2014. After losing just seven matches in 2013, he has already lost five with the heart of the season — the French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open — yet to come.
But what truly arches eyebrows is to see Nadal searching for answers and winners on clay. So it went in the spring of 2011 when Novak Djokovic’s elastic powers briefly left Nadal looking befuddled. So it went in April in Nadal’s traditional strongholds as he lost in the Monte Carlo quarterfinals to David Ferrer and in the Barcelona quarterfinals to Nicolas Almagro, who celebrated as if he had just completed the Grand Slam instead of reaching the semifinals of an ATP World Tour 500 event.
Upsetting Nadal and the natural order can do that to a man, particularly a sensitive fellow Spaniard who had lost all 10 of their previous matches. But the upset that would really resonate would come at the French Open, which starts May 25. Nadal has won a record eight singles titles at that major tournament and has a career record that looks ever more like a typo (59-1).\
Next up Madrid
Taking out Nadal at Roland Garros still ranks as the ultimate challenge. And despite the doubts and struggles of his April, Nadal clearly has ample time to recover, beginning with this week’s Masters 1000 in Madrid, where he is expected to start play Wednesday against the winner of the first-round match between Juan Monaco and Jürgen Melzer.
“If I were him, I would be far from panic,” said Paul Annacone, who coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer. “I don’t really believe in panic anyway. But Rafa has a couple more tournaments before the French. He’s going to get plenty of matches in. He’s won the French Open 6,000 times. It doesn’t mean it’s a fait accompli, but his level of comfort should be just fine.”
That assumes Nadal is healthy, or at least healthy enough, which can be tough to glean in an era in which the leading players rarely tell the truth about what pains them.
“You just never know what’s going continued…