For Rafael Nadal, time is running out to rediscover his form ahead of his attempt to regain his crown at the French Open and claim an unprecedented 10th title at Roland Garros. The confidence with which the Spaniard insisted he began 2016 has been in little evidence in what has been a chastening start to the tennis season.
After a more encouraging end to 2015, Nadal looked like continuing that momentum when making the final of his opening tournament in 2016 at the Qatar Open. But since then he has gone 4-4, suffering an emphatic defeat to Novak Djokovic in Qatar, an opening round loss to Fernando Verdasco at the Australian Open and two semifinal defeats on the South American clay, to Dominic Thiem and Pablo Cuevas. Startlingly, against top 50 opponents this year Nadal has gone 0-4.
Perhaps just as concerning for the 14-time Grand Slam champion, his last three defeats have come in the final set. Previously a near unbreakable force at the other end of the court, Nadal is now coming up short in the crucial moments of matches.
Of particular disappointment, too, will be that his return to clay failed to produce the confidence boost he surely will have been hoping. While a defeat to world No. 1 Djokovic and a loss to a big-hitting Verdasco and perhaps be written off, defeats against two players he will have expected to beat on a surface he dominated on for a decade will be harder to overcome.
And they bring further doubt upon the 29-year-old’s chances of landing the title in Paris. Nadal had only ever lost once at the French Open going into the tournament last year, making him both the most successful player ever at the Grand Slam and earning widespread recognition as the best clay-court player of all time. But he was handed a comprehensive straight-sets defeat by Djokovic in the quarterfinals last June to relinquish his stranglehold of the event.
Nadal will turn 30 during this year’s event and many have questioned whether is still capable of adding another Grand Slam title to his collection. There can be little doubt, though, that his best chance of doing so is at the French Open.
One man who believes Nadal can again get back to the winner’s circle is former French Open champion, and Nadal’s former captain with the Spanish Davis Cup team, Albert Costa.
“With Rafa Nadal you have to be patient because he has the will and motivation,” Costa said last week. “As I know, he is working on a daily basis so that he can improve, surely he will win more important tournaments. He's overcome injuries, last year he lacked confidence and in 2016, he has not had great results. But I have spoken to him and he is fighting to recover his form, and I am sure he will improve his tennis and will realize his goals for this season.”
Nadal has a packed schedule ahead of the French Open, including four tournaments on clay beginning next month. Before that, though, he will return to the hard courts, with the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami. In Indian Wells, which gets underway this week, Nadal will face either Gilles Muller or Victor Estrella Burgos in the second round.