At this late stage of an unparalleled career, Rafa Nadal is still fighting. Still working it out. Still competing. And there are lots of things for the 17-time major winner to battle.
Now into his 33rd year, time is a precious commodity for the Mallorcan as he tries to deflect the ageing process long enough to capture more silverware.
All of those hours training and charging around courts has given rise to niggles, strains and more serious ailments that bother him. Nadal’s knees have been troublesome for some time and he constantly manages his schedule to suit their mood.
If those issues weren’t enough, the world no.2 now has a fresh generation of players to brush off along with the old reliables. Novak Djokovic has been joined by Dominic Thiem and most recently Stefanos Tsitsipas in the hunt for Rafa’s clay court loot.
Amazingly, for all Djokovic’s dominance in the sport, the world no.1 would have to win the French Open every year until he’s 42 to match Nadal’s haul.
All that said, in assessing Nadal’s 2019 clay campaign so far, it’s clear that he is primarily competing with himself. He must wonder if he can still conjure up another blistering forehand down the line when it truly counts.
Before Rome, Nadal was running low on the old magic that’s served him so well. His most cherished period of the season did not begin as planned in Monte Carlo.
Fabio Fognini had no interest in letting Nadal leave the Principality with a 12th crown and instead used a potent cocktail of power and craft to dislodge the Spaniard from the semis.
The following week in Barcelona, Dominic Thiem nabbed his annual clay court win over Nadal on the King’s own court, the Pista Rafa Nadal. There would be no Catalonian dozen for the lefty this year.
Then, on the lively courts of Madrid, Tsitsipas burnished his already impressive reputation by defeating Rafa for the first time. The 20-year-old survived three sets with the master and Nadal was out of a third consecutive semi-final.
Apart from the results in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, the world no.2’s play was also concerning.
That notorious forehand, the foundation of his game, was not as effective as usual. Nadal’s movement was also sluggish at times, exposed by a number of dropshots.
For the first time in five years, the Mallorcan travelled to the Eternal City without a clay court title. In the middle of a drought, the 32-year-old hadn’t actually banked a winner’s cheque since Toronto 2018.
Given the difficult losses and concerns over form, Nadal pretty much had to win Rome to instil some confidence for another assault on Roland Garros.
Thankfully for the man with 81 singles titles, champions are born rather than grown. He didn’t just win Rome, he dominated it. The Spaniard brought a little piece of New York to the Italian capital as he served up bagels left and right.
Jeremy Chardy and Nikoloz Basilashvili earned just a game apiece from their tussles with Nadal. Fernando Verdasco was also bageled by his compatriot but at least grabbed four games in the quarters. Rafa then reasserted his authority over Tsitsipas in the last four with a straight sets win.
If Nadal wanted to stock up on confidence for Paris, there could be no better source than a victory over the world’s best player. Conversely, defeat to Djokovic in the final of Rome could have been extremely damaging to Nadal’s confidence.
As it turned out, Nadal was untouchable for most of the contest and even handed out another bagel, only the ninth of Djokovic’s career. I mean who bagels this Novak Djokovic?!
Apart from closing stages of the second set, the Spaniard was much too good and ran away with the final set to claim his 34th Masters 1000 and some vital confidence when it was most needed.
If Nadal goes on to lift the Coupe de Mousquetaires for a 12th time, it will be one of his greatest achievements given the standard of competition and the fact that he didn’t dominate the warm-up events.
“What happened in the last 14 years on clay is not the normality,” he said earlier this month. It now looks like we will live in abnormal times for at least another French Open.