Sport Tennis

King of clay no more?

Written by Ben Blaschke

Rafael Nadal won his fourth Madrid Open, 27th Masters event and 44th clay court title last night, yet for the first time since he burst onto the scene by winning the French Open in 2005, his standing as the king of clay appears to be under threat.

That seems like a strange thing to say about a man still ranked number one in the world and celebrating his 63rd career singles title. And to suggest that he can’t add to his 13 Grand Slam titles when the French Open gets underway in a fortnight would be naive. But it must be said that what has seemed an inevitability during his run of eight French Open wins in the past nine years no longer appears a fait accompli.

Let’s examine the evidence. Nadal has traditionally dominated the annual clay court season but until last night he had yet to register a tournament victory in the 2014 European clay court season. Last month he travelled to Monte Carlo for the Monte Carlo Masters – an event he has won eight times before – but bowed out in the quarter-finals in straight sets to compatriot David Ferrer.

Next up was Barcelona – another event he has won eight times – but again he was eliminated in the quarter finals, this time at the hands of Nicolas Almagro. And even his win in Madrid was aided by a favorable set of circumstances with both Novak Djokovic, through injury, and Roger Federer, for family reasons, withdrawing from the event early. Nadal produced a good win over world number six Tomas Berdych in the quarter finals but trailed Kei Nishikori by a set and a break in the final before the Japanese player hurt his back during a service game at 4-3 in the second. Nadal won the next six games before Nishikori was forced to retire.

Nadal has won the French Open eight times in the past nine years

Nadal has won the French Open eight times in the past nine years

Notably, the Spaniard had won all six previous meetings between the two for the loss of only a single set yet had injury not intervened Nishikori looked odds-on to break the drought.

The upside of all of this is that there will be at least half a dozen players who genuinely believe they can win the French Open in 2014, as opposed to previous years where the goal was often to go as far as you could until you ran into Nadal. They include world number two Djokovic who has won the past three meetings between the two; Federer who won in Paris in 2009; Stanislas Wawrinka who beat Nadal in the Australian Open final in January and won the Monte Carlo Masters last month; Ferrer and Almagro who have already beaten Nadal on clay this year; plus the next batch of clay court specialists who will recognize the opportunity ahead of them – the likes of Fabio Fognini, Richard Gasquet and Grigor Dimitrov.

Could someone like Nicolas Almagro become the new king of clay?

Could someone like Nicolas Almagro become the new king of clay?

But that’s a good thing for men’s tennis. While it would be a shame to see the greatest clay court player of all time lose his sparkle, the French Open suddenly becomes a whole lot more interesting to watch when it’s not simply the Rafael Nadal show. Perhaps now it’s time for someone else to shine.