French Open 2019: Is clay king Nadal finally vulnerable at Roland Garros?

By Ben Spratt 25 May 2019 188
French Open 2019: Is clay king Nadal finally vulnerable at Roland Garros?

Three semi-final defeats and an ATP Masters 1000 title would represent a handsome return from the clay courts for most players heading into the French Open.

But Rafael Nadal is the 'King of Clay', an 11-time Roland Garros champion, and might understandably hold himself to a higher standard.

The Spaniard has lost just twice at the second major of the year in his entire career. He is used to dominating at this time of the season.

Putting Nadal's achievements on the red dirt into context, Simona Halep, the women's defending champion, this week dismissed the idea they could ever be replicated on the WTA Tour.

"I don't see that. Never, ever," she told Omnisport, speaking courtesy of Hublot. "That is unique."

Consequently, failure to collect the Internazionali d'Italia title last week would have represented a crisis of sorts for the world number two.

Nadal had never previously headed to the French Open without a title on clay in the months prior, meaning a trio of last-four losses this year suddenly left him looking vulnerable.

Novak Djokovic was cast aside in Rome, but questions over whether this remains the same supreme Nadal of years gone may linger for some.

But what factors could see Roland Garros' greatest ever champion dethroned?

 

NADAL'S FORM

Nadal's first three clay-court tournaments of 2019 went the same way, starting with what he branded "one of the worst matches" he had ever played on the surface as he lost to Fabio Fognini in straight sets at the Monte Carlo Masters.

The Spaniard was then stunned by the sensational Dominic Thiem at the Barcelona Open, while Stefanos Tsitsipas came up with a huge performance at the Madrid Open.

Nadal belatedly beat a top-20 player on the red dirt for the first time this season in Rome, overcoming Nikoloz Basilashvili and Tsitsipas before downing Djokovic for his first ATP Tour title of the year.

NADAL'S FITNESS

Besides the return to form in Italy, the good news for Nadal in recent months has been the absence of injuries.

The 32-year-old withdrew from the Indian Wells Masters in March due to a knee complaint, continuing a concerning trend of pulling out of high-profile hard-court tournaments in 2018.

Nadal has since completed four consecutive events and has perhaps simply been building his fitness.

 

THE CHALLENGERS

If Nadal is on the wane, there are no shortage of up-and-comers ready to take his place. None of his defeats this year have been flukes, although Fognini remains hugely unpredictable.

Thiem has now beaten Nadal on clay in four consecutive seasons, while Tsitsipas, still just 20, looks to be at the beginning of a career at the very top of the sport.

Elsewhere, Alexander Zverev has not faced Nadal this year but has two clay Masters titles to his name. There are now threats beyond Djokovic and Roger Federer, or the absent Andy Murray.

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Ben Spratt

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