It’s just over a week away from the start of the French Open and for the first time in pretty much his entire professional career, Rafael Nadal is looking somewhat vulnerable on his favourite surface. For much of the past decade Nadal has been nigh invincible as he’s racked up records and ground down opponent after opponent into the red dust as much through the sheer intimidation of his clay-court record, as the ferocity of his heavy topspin.
But while he picked up another Madrid Masters title last Sunday, the final may have gone very differently if Kei Nishikori had not incurred a back injury when apparently in control of the match.
And although Nadal ultimately progressed relatively smoothly to the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters, he found himself trailing veteran Mikhail Youzhny by a set and a break before turning things around.
After a straight sets mauling at Roland Garros back in 2006, American qualifier Kevin Kim famously compared facing Nadal on clay to trekking through the Sahara desert.
Even when battling severe tendonitis in his knees, he was still overwhelmingly better than almost anyone else on clay, perhaps with the exception of Novak Djokovic.
However since April, Nadal has been beaten twice on clay – suffering losses to David Ferrer in Monte Carlo and even more shockingly, Nicolas Almagro in Barcelona.
Ferrer reached a career high of No.3 in the world after making the French Open final last June but when addressing the press ahead of the biggest match of his life, it was clear he did not seriously believe he could win.
So what’s changed? “The reason is I am not playing well enough right now,” Nadal said after losing to Ferrer.
“That's the main reason. I am not playing with the right intensity with my legs. When that happens, the unforced errors are there more often I started the year great in Doha and Australia but after what happened in Australia (he suffered an injury during the final against Stanislas Wawrinka), it was little bit harder for me to find the intensity, the confidence, and the inside power that always I have.
Even though I won in Rio and I made the Miami finals, there’s something missing in my mind and in my game. I’m fighting hard to find that solution soon.”
Emilio Sanchez-Vicario, the former coach of Andy Murray, believes that Nadal’s baseline game has weakened due to changes he’s made in his movement to try and reduce the pressure on his troublesome left knee, and as a result his backhand has become far more erratic.
Nadal has also spoken about an apparent loss of self-belief and it could also be the case that such a triumphant yet emotionally draining season in 2013 has taken more out of him than is immediately apparent.
At the same time, there’s a strong feeling sweeping through men’s tennis that something of a transition period may be underway.
Novak Djokovic’s supreme dominance has faded, Roger Federer blows hot and cold and Andy Murray is rarely at his best outside of the majors.
Inspired by the exploits of Stanislas Wawrinka, players like Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga now genuinely believe they might have a shot at winning a Grand Slam.
And belief is often half the battle.
“I played against Rafa four years ago and he beat me so easily because I was thinking, ‘This is Rafa, you have to beat him three times just to win one point!’ If you think like that you have no chance,” says Horacio Zeballos who beat Nadal on the clay of Vina Del Mar last year.
“When we played in Chile I tried to think not about that and just pretended that he was a normal player and tried to play my own game and not think about how good he is.
I was really trying to not to think too much. My strategy was just to press the automatic button, concentrate on playing tennis and try not to think that it was Rafa in the final. Thinking too much just puts more pressure on you.”
Combined with a fearless, attacking game plan and the doubts at the back of Nadal’s mind may just begin to magnify.
One telling statistic this spring is the sheer number of break points he’s failed to convert. Normally so ruthless when it matters most, Nadal appears to be getting anxious and error prone at the key moments.
“When I beat him was trying to put pressure on him all the time,” Zeballos said.
“I was trying to use my serve and my forehand and trying to finish the points at the net and also trying to use some drop shots. I think the key to beating Rafa is to try to be aggressive and finish the points as soon as you can.”
Nadal has lost just once at Roland Garros in nine years but if the draw throws him a few tricky tests early on, his mettle could be seriously tested.