Will Rafael Nadal be able to defend his title in Rome?

‘Today was the first day I felt really confident on the clay, it’s my best match on the surface this year. My confidence is back thanks to this week.’

by Veronica Bruno
Will Rafael Nadal be able to defend his title in Rome?

Rafael Nadal is having to explain his confidence at the start of clay season after his second semifinal loss in a row, to Dominic Thiem, 6-4, 6-4 in Barcelona. “After this week my confidence is back,” Nadal said, according to the ATP.

“I really believe that I made very good improvements to create a good base to try to achieve my goals during the next couple of weeks." It sounds strange listening to Nadal have to justify his confidence at this stage of the clay season.

By this time last year, Nadal had collected his ‘Undecima’ titles at Monte Carlo and Barcelona. His dominance on clay was not questioned, and his streak on the surface continued to fascinate, all the way to the road to Roland Garros, where he collected another 11th title.

The 17-time grand slam champion is in a far different position this year. Rafa’s lost three straight semi-finals, including the one he withdrew from against his great rival Roger Federer, in Miami. Nadal’s right knee injury was the cause of the Miami disappointment, but he’s faced these issues before and recovered in time to rule on clay.

Nadal says he is still building his body back up after the injury. Although he’s lost in back-to-back semis, the defeat to Dominic Thiem was much less disappointing than the one to Fabio Fognini, who almost bageled him in the second set, 6-4, 6-2, in Monte Carlo.

"[It’s a] big difference. Against Fognini I played the worst match probably in 14 years on clay. Today [against Thiem in Barcelona], I played a good match of tennis… I played against a great opponent,” Nadal said after his semifinal loss to Thiem.

“Fognini is a great opponent too but I was not a competitive player. Today I was competitive, and I enjoyed the match. I really felt [that I was] competitive for the first time in a way that I want to feel myself. And as I said before I am happy, and I am confident that I made a big improvement this week.

There are a few factors contributing to a less intimidating Rafael Nadal this year. Clay court players who have come so close to achieving major victories in the past are finding answers against the ‘king of clay.’ Fognini, and especially Thiem, fall into this category.

Thiem is one of the few players to beat Nadal during his time of clay dominance on that surface! It’s no wonder that he’s been able to break through this year, with a less than 100 percent Rafa. Some have speculated that we are witnessing the decline of Rafael Nadal on clay.

It’s premature to definitely make that statement. At age 32, it is no longer a given that retirement looms around the corner, in this day of older tennis stars continue to persevere spectacularly. Amazon tennis TV analyst and former world No.

4 Greg Rusedski thinks it’s indicative of a falloff, however.

But does this mean the 11-time French Open champion won’t be the favourite going into the clay slam? Absolutely not.

Five setters are far different, and no one is more comfortable at Roland Garros than the Spaniard. The ability to steel your nerves at the biggest tournament on clay and fight back from behind are rare circumstances that Rafa excels at.

The Big Three—Federer and Novak Djokovic—have retained a stranglehold on the grand slams for decades for a reason. They have an uncanny ability to master challenges on the biggest stages better than anyone else can.

All you have to do is watch Marin Cilic’s breakdown in the 2017 Wimbledon final against Federer to understand the kind of pressure you have to overcome to win a grand slam final. Even with Thiem’s win over Nadal at last year’s Madrid Masters tournament, the Austrian was unable to conquer his nerves in the French Open final to collect his first grand slam title.

Nadal sailed through three breezy sets to win his 11th Coupe de Mousquetaires. Before that, Rafa will be hoping to avenge his recent losses to Thiem at the next Masters event, Madrid. Federer will also enter this tournament for the first time in three years.

Fans will be excited to have both legends playing there. Nadal noted that he’s improving tournament by tournament. "It's been a very positive week," Nadal said. "I came from a lot of low moments in Monte Carlo." After Madrid Nadal will be looking to defend his Rome Masters title. If he continues to improve, he is certainly still the frontrunner for the French Open.

Rafael Nadal