Paris: Rafael Nadal targets a ninth French Open title with his lethal claycourt game and enduring confidence facing their biggest crisis in a decade.
The Spaniard, whose stirring comeback from a seventh-month injury lay-off was one of 2013’s headline acts, boasts a formidable record of eight titles, 59 wins and just one defeat on Roland Garros’s famed crushed red brick. But the cracks are beginning to show.
With his 28th birthday just around the corner, the world No. 1 has spent the spring strangely disorientated on the same European clay courts where he once conducted business with a deadly if humble precision.
His defeat to world No. 2 Novak Djokovic — the man many expect to dethrone him as king of Paris on June 8 — in Sunday’s Rome Masters final marked the first time since 2004 that he had lost three claycourt matches in the same year.
Nadal, a seven-time Rome champion, was taken to three sets in four of his five matches in the Italian capital. He successfully defended his Madrid Masters title but only after Kei Nishikori, having won the first set of the final, was forced to retire with a back injury.
Before that, Nadal was knocked out in the quarter finals in Barcelona by compatriot Nicolas Almagro and exited the Monte Carlo Masters also at the last-eight stage at the hands of David Ferrer.
At both those events, Nadal was an eight-time champion. But Nadal is not reaching for the panic button just yet. He still boasts a 13-4 claycourt record over Djokovic, including victory in the 2012 Roland Garros final and in the 2013 semi-finals where he had trailed 4-2 in the fifth set.