There’s a fellow who plays on the ATP Men’s Tour who you may be familiar with. He’s known to be pretty good on clay, with a 302-23 lifetime record (.929), and a mere 43 titles to his name as of this writing. Eight of those titles have been won in Paris where he has a single loss to blemish his record in nine appearances there. Since 2004, when he was a teenager, he has never lost more than two matches on the red dirt in a season.
And, by the way, he has made a habit out of making life miserable for the man many consider (up to this point, anyway) to be the greatest player ever, Roger Federer.
Give up? If you don’t know the answer, you either care not one iota about sports, or perhaps have been in a coma for the past decade. Our mystery man is Rafael Nadal, of course, the greatest clay court player in the history of men’s professional tennis. While Nadal has done nothing short of extraordinary things in the past decade during the months of April, May, and June on the clay courts themselves, it is a comment that he made recently while playing in the Barcelona Open that was so remarkable that it cannot be ignored. The remark demonstrated just how fragile confidence can be even for a world-class athlete of Nadal’s mettle.
This remarkable comment by Nadal was noted in a 4/25/14 Bleacher Report column by Patrick Clarke. After an early-round win in the Barcelona Open over Croatian journeyman Ivan Dodig, Nadal indicated that the comfortable win provided a boost to his confidence. You will recall the clay court resume of Nadal that was previously referred to. By contrast, in the event that you are not familiar with Ivan Dodig, he is a 29 year-old tour veteran whose career-high ranking is 29th (he was ranked 36th as of this writing). Dodig owns one career title (as opposed to 62 for Nadal), the 2011 edition of the illustrious PBZ Zagreb Indoors (no insult intended). Dodig’s career winning percentage is slightly south of .500, and yet Nadal, incredibly, is citing this clay court victory as a boost to his morale.
Of course, Nadal is known for being profusely humble after any win, and perhaps he was being somewhat polite in making this comment, but considering that the victory was his 41st consecutive at Barcelona, the “modesty” appeared almost absurd. Was the King of Clay truly feeling that vulnerable?
Perhaps he was. In Nadal’s next match in the quarters, he lost to Nicolas Almagro, a countryman who is one of numerous “whipping boys” in the Nadal harem, having lost to Rafa 10 straight times (all ten times they had played, in fact). More remarkable yet was the fact that Almagro lost the first set, and after recovering to win the second in a tiebreaker, went down 1-3 in the third. Was there a single individual watching that match who ever would have dreamed that Nadal would then lose five of the last six games to suffer defeat for a second straight week in the quarters of a tournament he had won 8 times? Even Roger Federer himself chimed in on Facebook his absolute shock at Rafa’s defeat. Was there a “spook” in Nadal’s head that came with him to Barcelona from Monte Carlo?
Nadal, to an extent, is a victim of his own unearthly success on the European clay. The Spaniard has been so machine-like and merciless (truly the Terminator of the red clay) in his domination on the surface that consecutive hiccups like he has experienced have all observers of the game, casual and dedicated alike, wondering what could be going on with him. In all likelihood, there is nothing “wrong” with Rafa, but the struggles compel us to speculate nevertheless.
What certainly can be taken away from Nadal’s recent stumbles, though, is the realization of just how fragile confidence can be for even the world’s most elite athletes. Most of us as fans of the game cannot imagine how a perennial champion like Nadal could ever feel anything but supremely confident, but the simple truth is that even tennis’ best competitors experience those dark periods of self-doubt. Nadal and the rest are, at their essence, mere mortals like the rest of us. However, this realization is fundamental to why we have such admiration for the true greats of sport: We know that they have the same mental frailties and insecurities as the remainder of humankind, yet they manage to keep those demons at bay most of the time in competitive situations, refusing to capitulate to those negative emotions.
Nadal’s consecutive-week failures also make testimony to the fact that the dominance of top players is not simply about what is going on between the ears of the favored player. The mindset of the lower-ranked player is very much relevant as well. When a Nadal, or a Federer, or a Djokovic is in peak form, that player may very well benefit from what might be termed the “aura of invincibility”, that mystique of sorts which says to the underdog, “Give it your best shot, but you have no chance today.” When the elite player is clearly not on his game, though, that aura disappears very quickly, empowering the lesser player. A legend like Nadal, especially on his beloved clay, likely has a majority of his matches primarily won before the first ball has even been struck, but any perceived sign of weakness can change the dynamics of the match almost instantly.
In conclusion, the struggles of an all-time great like Rafael Nadal are a reminder of how fragile success in sport can be. Confidence, even for elite athletes accustomed to not only winning, but dominating their opponents, can evaporate with surprising ease. As in the recent case of Nadal, uncharacteristic struggles do make for fascinating drama. Could the reign of King Rafa on clay be coming to an end? If so, who will take advantage of that situation? Whatever happens for the remainder of the spring clay court season, however, one truth will remain: The line between great success and bitter disappointment in major tennis events is astoundingly thin. The seeds of victory or defeat germinate as much in a player’s mind as they do in the actual court events themselves. It is for this reason that we watch, and will continue to watch, as long as there are matches to be played.
Statistics courtesy of the ATP website, atpworldtour.com