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By Chris Oddo | Monday, April 28, 2014

 
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Suddenly beatable on his beloved clay, Rafael Nadal finds himself an underdog heading into Madrid. Does he have the tour right where he wants them now?

Photo Source: AFP

After his shock loss to Nicolas Almagro in Friday’s Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell quarterfinal, Rafael Nadal has failed to reach clay-court finals in back-to-back weeks for the first time since 2004. It may sound like the sky is falling, the writing is on the wall and the empire is crumbling all at once, but in a strange way the catastrophic eight days that saw Nadal lose hold of colossal winning streaks against David Ferrer in Monte-Carlo and then Almagro in Barcelona might be just the thing the eight-time Roland Garros champion needs at this stage of his career.

Barcelona: Almagro Ends Nadal's 41-Match Winning Streak With Late Surge

Back-to-back early exits on his beloved surface may not be doing wonders for the king of clay’s confidence, but when it comes to the fire pit in his belly that has perpetually stoked the sport’s brightest-burning cauldron of desire over the years, the losses may cause Nadal to turn up the heat and unleash a scalding-hot cluster of combustion that will galvanize his lethal clay-court game for yet another Roland Garros title gallop.

Without some timely spontaneous combustion the Spaniard is most certainly in danger of letting his empire slip out from beneath him. His minions are running loose, firing one-handed backhands right into his kitchen and getting weak replies. It is no longer just Novak Djokovic that can rub elbows with Nadal on the dirt—now it seems that anyone with the courage to red-line his game or the willingness to trade baseline blows with Nadal has a chance to do it, too.

Whatever the reason, in 2014 Nadal seems more human than ever on clay. Why? Has he overplayed his hand by competing too much in the last year? Has he lost a step, or an ounce of power from that golden left arm? Is he encountering the lack of interest that many rulers of kingdoms inevitably experience? Theories abound, but for now all we have is numbers.

And the number that is more important than any other at the moment is nine.

Nine has clearly become the unattainable marker for Nadal—he’s failed twice to win the Monte-Carlo title for a ninth time, and now he’s failed to win a ninth Barcelona title—but these failures might in the end provide the Spaniard with the extra impetus he'll need when the season's long, winding road has finally dropped him off at Roland Garros, where he'll take a crack at ruling the terre battue for a record ninth time.

Nadal has always relished the chance to be the underdog and, just like last season, he'll have the chance to embrace that role once again in May as the tour makes its final stops in Madrid and Rome before turning the corner and heading for Paris. With his game and his confidence believed to be in disarray, Nadal can look inward while simultaneously setting his sights on the top of the mountain, that distant peak that all the world is starting to believe he'll never reach.

Isn't it funny? Nadal, the most dominating clay-court player that tennis has ever seen has once again cast himself as the underdog as the French Open approaches. In reality he's anything but, but perception, in this case, could be far more important. Psychologically, the underdog mentality could be exactly what Nadal needs to drive him out of his current state of slumber. If he waltzed into Roland Garros on a winning streak he might be far more vulnerable, but now, looking over his shoulder and driven by his own obsessive fear of failure, Nadal could be arriving at the introspective, neurotic sweet spot that suits him best.

Still, there is clearly something missing from Nadal’s game at the moment, and psychology won't make his forehand drives go deeper into the court or his second serve more effective. So the challenge will be physical just as much as it is spiritual for Nadal. Other than a lack of confidence which he says has stemmed from his loss in Australia to Stanislas Wawrinka, it's hard not to wonder: what exactly is wrong with Nadal?

“Rhythm, a little bit of intensity,” ventured the Spaniard after his loss to Almagro last Friday.

Could that be it? And if so, which came first, the rhythm or the intensity?

For Nadal, clearly it is the latter. As mind-blowing as his game is, it has always been his mental and spiritual prowess that has guided him to the seemingly endless proliferation of otherworldly benchmarks and milestones that have characterized his career.

Now, with his 28th birthday fast approaching, Nadal will be forced to find that spiritual element in his game once again, and he will have to stoke a fire that burns brighter than ever before, because his current crisis of confidence demands it.

Make no mistake about it; Nadal is in trouble right now. For whatever reason (could it be that the 113 matches he has played in fourteen months since returning from his 7-month hiatus due to knee problems have worn him down? Could it still be the back, even though he asserts it is not?) the Spaniard’s once indomitable clay-court game has slipped a notch. If it weren’t for the two match points he saved against Pablo Andujar in Rio, Nadal might have already lost three matches on clay for the first time since 2004, with the three biggest events still to come.

Nadal himself appeared to recognize the lack of something intangible in his game after his loss to Ferrer on April 18th in Monte-Carlo, saying, “I don’t have to lie to nobody. After what happened in Australia it was a little bit harder for me to find again the intensity, the confidence, the inside power that always I have. Even I won Rio, I played final in Miami, you know, remains something in my mind and in my game. I am going to fight to try to find that solution soon.”

He has not found it yet, and in the interim the rest of the tour has become the shark who smells blood in the water. Can Nadal swim to shore and find his feet on the clay again? Of course he can, but he'll have to stop the bleeding first.

Perhaps a few weeks as the underdog could be the ultimate coagulant. Just as he did in 2010 and 2013, when he returned from serious injury to win multiple Grand Slams, Nadal once again finds himself cornered, doubted, and with his back against the wall. Could it be that the Spaniard has the rest of the tour just where he wants them? Has he backed himself into the corner from which he will emerge, punching with such force that nothing can deny him from the Roland Garros title?

In the end, we might come to the realization that it wasn't really blood we saw in the water. It was just a reflection of the sanguine desire of a man they call the king to once again prove his mettle.

 

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