Prior to Sunday’s loss in the Madrid Masters final, Rafael Nadal had never dropped a single clay match to Andy Murray in their six previous meetings. The crushing straight-set letdown, which was supposed to be a tune-up in his native country as Nadal prepares to defend his French Open title in two weeks, instead plopped the 28-year-old Spaniard to No. 7 in the ATP’s latest men’s rankings.
It’s Nadal's lowest ranking since May 2005, and it comes on the heels of his fourth defeat of the year on the surface where he’s claimed 46 of his career 65 singles titles.
Clearly there’s some cause for concern as the trip Roland Garros nears, especially with the slip up in the rankings meaning Nadal will have to face much tougher competition in the opening rounds.
Still, there’s little reason to believe Nadal isn’t a favorite at this year’s French. He might have hiccuped in the rankings, but no one ahead of Nadal has managed to top him at Roland Garros in quite some time.
For one, success in the tournaments leading up to the French haven’t always gone hand-in-hand for Nadal. He’s won the Madrid Masters three times in his career (2014, 2013, 2010) and made six total trips to the finals there. That hardly correlates with his nine French titles since 2005.
Furthermore, Nadal’s colleagues like rival Roger Federer admitted prior to Madrid that he was still the favorite in Paris, which means even when he isn’t playing his best opponents still fear Nadal on clay.
"I still believe Rafa is the favorite at this event even though he may not be playing his absolute best tennis in recent times,” Federer said.
In fact, naysayers may be holding Nadal to the standard he set with his torrid and unstoppable run in 2013, when he went 75-7 with 10 singles titles, losing only twice before the French. It was unquestionably the greatest stretch of play in Nadal’s career to date, but keeping up that kind of production in the face of myriad injuries to his knees, back and ankles is highly unrealistic.
Instead, Nadal should be judged on how well he’s parried every opponent under the big lights at Roland Garros and other major tournaments, even those who’ve jumped past him in the rankings.
As stated before, he’s taken down No. 3 Murray six out seven times on clay, including their two meetings in the French in straight sets.
Nadal’s never lost to No. 2 Federer in the French, and dropped only four sets in their five matches. Not to mention Federer hasn’t beaten Nadal since Indian Wells in 2012, when his knee was once again acting up.
No. 4 Milos Raonic has gone 1-5 versus Nadal in six career matches, and his only victory came on the hard court at Indian Wells earlier this year.
There’s also No. 5 Tomas Berdych, who owns a poor 4-19 record against Nadal, with only one of those victories taking place since 2006.
The only real threat to Nadal is No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who has managed to even the playing surface so to speak. The Serbian’s won five of their last six meetings, including two on clay at the Monte Carlo Masters earlier this year, and Rome last year. But Nadal is 6-0 all-time in the French against Djokovic, and it isn't guaranteed that Djokovic will coast to the late rounds.