To reel off Rafael Nadal’s achievements on clay is no short task. But a few notable ones would include the fact that, by winning the French Open last year, he became the only player to win the same grand slam nine times - five of which were in a row.
In 2010 he also became the only player to have achieved the “clay slam”, which involved winning all three masters tournaments and the Grand Slam on clay. He went on to become the first player to ever win eight consecutive titles at a single tournament when he won in Monte Carlo in 2012.
If that wasn’t enough, between 2005 and 2007 Nadal managed to rack up an unbelievable 81 consecutive wins on his favourite surface and to this day, still has a 92.98 winning percentage on clay.
His unprecedented history on this surface is why he is called the King of Clay after all.
But the king’s reign is under threat as the 2015 clay season gets into full swing.
He hasn’t started this year in the best form. In the two Masters tournaments of the year, he suffered shock defeats, first to Milos Raonic in Indian Wells and then to Fernando Verdasco in Miami.
Whilst critics were blaming his fitness and recent injuries, Nadal was quite adamant that it was more a crisis of confidence.
“It’s not a question of tennis. The thing is the question of being relaxed enough to play well on court,” he told reporters in Miami. “A month and a half ago, I didn’t have the game. My game has improved but I am still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, important moments, still a little anxious on those moments.
“The physical problems are in the past. I am in competition. I’m playing weeks in a row. I’m feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that when I hit the ball, I am going to hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball knowing that my position will be the right one.”
But what exactly is causing the former World number one’s lack of self-belief? Has his injury-riddled past done more mental damage than physical? Or is the size of his legacy becoming too daunting a prospect that is distracting him on court?
Worried fans and critics alike were looking to the start of the clay court season for the reigning 9-time French Open champion to find his form.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for the Spaniard as a good stint on his favourite surface could banish his anxiety and restore Nadal to his former greatness for the rest of the season. So it seems more important than ever that, ahead of his 10th French Open title attempt, Nadal can take one of the clay court Masters tournaments.
But, there’s a giant hurdle ahead of him in the shape of a seemingly unassailable Novak Djokovic. After winning for eight consecutive years, Nadal crashed out of the Rolex Masters when he lost to Djokovic in the semi-finals.
Nadal did manage to put in a very competitive performance at the tournament, saying he felt he was almost back at his best, but one of his biggest rivals is in the form of his life and is looking unstoppable so far this year.
Djokovic went on to win the tournament and equalled Nadal’s record of winning three consecutive Masters tournaments in a row, although his first two were during the hard-court season. It wouldn’t be too outrageous to suggest that Djokovic could win both the two remaining Masters tournaments that are left and shatter Nadal’s previous Masters record.
For the sake of tennis fans everywhere, it would be a little disengaging if Djokovic became untouchable so early in the season. To dethrone Nadal as the King of Clay would be a great achievement for him but a sad day for the sport as everyone is dying to see how many French Opens Nadal can rack up.
We all love to see records made and broken and each title Nadal can get pushes that record even higher.
Things haven’t improved much for Nadal as his losing streak continued in Barcelona, another tournament the Spaniard has previously dominated. He ended up losing in straight sets to Fabio Fognini in only the third round of the competition, his earliest exit for 12 years at the Barcelona Open.
Nadal said Fognini was the better player but also added “I am convinced that this situation of ups and downs I have had since returning from injuries sooner or later will come to an end.” Here’s hoping!
There are two very important masters tournaments left before the French Open takes place at the end of May. The first is the Madrid Open and it is immediately followed by the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome.
Nadal has won both titles numerous times and is the reigning champ of the Madrid Open, which starts on May 3rd. If Nadal can’t manage to find his form in these two venues where he has enjoyed much success, it would be difficult to see him going on to win Roland Garros.
But all we have to do is look at 2014 and we can see that, as it stands right now, Nadal is almost exactly where he was last year when he went on to take his ninth title in Paris.
Plagued with injury and hounded by non-believers, Nadal crashed out of Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Everyone was saying the King of Clay was not as dominant as he once was and that he may not win another French Open.
But not only did Nadal go on to win in Madrid last year, he also won the French Open, something that merely reinforced his legendary status on clay. The world trembled on its axis when Nadal dropped the first set. But it was merely a formality for the champion as he went on to dominate Djokovic in what was an impressive final.
In the face of a bad streak and recent injuries, the former world number one was able to dismiss the doubts and go on to return to his very best form. This is why it is crucial for Nadal to enjoy a successful campaign in either Madrid or Rome. He needs to muster the brief flash of form he showed in Monte Carlo when he lost a close match to Djokovic.
Not only will this prove to everyone that he is still a presence to be reckoned with but it should dismiss his own doubts in his game and restore his confidence in himself as a grand slam champion.
If he fails to win either masters tournament, this will be the worst clay court season he will have had in over ten years, not exactly the best preparation for a grand slam.
With just over a week to go before things get underway in Madrid, the tennis world sits and waits anxiously to see what challenge the currently deflated Rafael Nadal can bring.