India — A viral video of Rafael Nadal’s press conference at the 2019 ATP Rome Masters resurfaced on social media ahead of this year’s tournament. The eight-second clip has the Spaniard explaining, simplistically and rapidly, his coming into the Italian Open after losses in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid.
“What happened in Monte Carlo happened. And what happened in Barcelona happened. And what happened in Madrid happened,” Nadal says with a blistering pace usually reserved for his forehand winners, before taking a deep breath. “And here we are. We are in Rome.”
And there he was in Rome, doing the exact same thing this year as in 2019-beating Novak Djokovic in the final to reaffirm his status as the man to beat heading into next week’s French Open. That despite a few wobbles in the previous three clay-court tournaments, and in Rome too where he staved off two match points against Denis Shapovalov in Round 16.
The world No.3’s body language at different points during Sunday’s 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 final victory offered a peek into why the title-he had already won nine times-carried a great degree of significance. The fist pump was out after winning the first set, which rose to a couple of full-blown first thuds on the move while winning the fifth game of the deciding set where Djokovic had a chance to break before Nadal did to bury the contest. When the world No. 1 sent the ball sailing wide on championship point, Nadal flung his arms wide, skipped and flashed a huge smile.
“I went through a lot of things during the week-some positive, some great moments, some lucky moments, suffering moments. At the end I think I played a very solid week of tennis. It’s the right moment to win an important title,” Nadal told reporters.
The moment was right because some things in the weeks leading up to it weren’t. Playing his first tournament after the Australian Open-and only the second of the year-Nadal lost in the quarter-finals of the Monte Carlo Masters to Andrey Rublev. He moved on to the ATP 500 Barcelona Open, winning for the 12th time but not before dropping a set in his opening two rounds, to Ilya Ivashka and Kei Nishikori, and saving a championship point against Stefanos Tsitsipas in a 6-4, 6-7(6), 7-5 final win.
A straight sets quarter-final thrashing at the hands of Alexander Zverev in the Madrid Masters followed. Nadal led in the first set, and looked the better player for the most part yet he managed to lose 6-4, 6-4. With the Spaniard on clay, it’s usually the other way around: finding ways to win even while not playing at the optimum level.
“This year I haven’t seen him (Nadal) as strong on clay as last year,” German legend Boris Becker told Eurosport’s podcast last week. “If he doesn’t win Rome now, he can’t come to Paris with an incredible amount of confidence. Yes, he has won (French Open) 13 times, but I didn’t find him that dominant yet this year. Even in Barcelona, he had to go over three sets.”
Dominance is what Nadal is accustomed to in the four clay-court tournaments strung together as a prelude to Roland Garros, where he has given that term a completely different meaning. In the three seasons before his 2014-16 phase of injuries and drop in form, Nadal roared to the final in each of these four tournaments in 2011 (winning Monte Carlo and Barcelona) and 2013 (winning Barcelona, Madrid and Rome). In 2012, except for a Round of 16 defeat in Madrid, he won the other trophies. Unsurprisingly, Nadal bossed the French Open in those years.
Even in 2017 and 2018, Nadal won at least three of the four events en route to pocketing more Roland Garros titles. Only in 2019 did Nadal struggle to stitch a winning run in these tournaments, losing in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. The Spaniard though found the title triumph he so desperately needed in Rome, and carried that renewed belief to Paris.
The 34-year-old checked into Rome looking for a similar shot of confidence and a few answers in his game. He found them not just on the score-sheet but also with his misfiring weapon on the red dirt-the top-spin heavy, masterly-angled forehand shots.
Forehand firing again
His trademark, fiery forehand was unusually off the boil in the three tournaments before Rome. Take, for example, the loss against Zverev in Madrid. Nadal accumulated only four winners across two sets off his forehand compared to the German’s 18. Worse still, 10 of Nadal’s 17 unforced errors came from his otherwise solid side.
Nadal spent that bit extra on the practice courts in Rome, working to get his forehand humming. The evidence that it was, came in the final against Djokovic, Nadal firing 15 forehand winners in the first set alone (Djokovic had two), and 26 in the match to the top-ranked Serb’s 11. The point to win the decisive fifth game and avoid a break in the final set was a thundering forehand down-the-line winner from Nadal.
“I have been playing better and better with my forehand the past couple of weeks, getting to the confidence point,” Nadal said. “. the positive thing is the winners and the solutions with my forehand have been much better than the past couple of weeks. That’s a huge improvement for me, (a) very important shot. Especially on clay, it gives me confidence.”
A confident Nadal-with a title under his belt and a forehand acting like his best friend than a foe-entering Paris with a 14th Roland Garros title in sight can’t infuse much confidence in other contenders.