When an opponent, who is ranked outside top-10, requires less than two hours to dethrone Rafael Nadal in a clay tournament, one could safely say that all is not good in the Spaniard's camp.
The first person, who admitted this fact, not surprisingly was the man himself. Nadal suffered straight-sets loss to Italian Fabio Fognini in the semi-final of ATP Monte Carlo Masters.
"The vision was clear, but I played a very bad match. It was a tough day and he was a difficult opponent. It was this kind of day that everything went wrong. I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years," said defending champion Nadal in the post-match conference.
Monte Carlo Masters is the opening tournament in the lead up to Nadal's fortress, French Open. The King of Clay, who has a record 11 Rolland Garros trophies in his cabinet, also has a special streak at France's Monte Carlo Country Club. Nadal created history when he won the title eight straight times between 2005 and 2012.
(Rafael Nadal hold the record of most Monte Carlo titles with 11 to his credit Image: Twitter/Monte Carlo)
Going into the 2019 edition, Nadal aimed at the 12th trophy in France's Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. He was a certain favourite to clinch that as he was on an 18-match winning and overall 25-set winning streak. His grip on clay has been so good that one could imagine him sweeping away a title even by being half fit. Unfortunately, it was not the case this year.
After fighting injuries across the year, Nadal somehow has always managed to rejuvenate himself just ahead of the clay season. A win or two in those tournaments has always charged him up for the upcoming challenges in the year.
Even before the start of 2019, Nadal withdrew from Brisbane citing knee issues. He returned to Melbourne in the Australian Open as though he was never away due to an injury. He refused to drop a set and zoomed into the final, where he saw his fairy-tale run was put to an end like never before.
Irrespective of the tournament and a level, Nadal is known for his fighting image. He never-ever displays any kind of loose attitude on the court and a body language, that hints him giving up, has always been far away from him.
When it's Nadal on the other end, you know he is going to do everything possible from the first ball to the last one. He has a tough mental strength that always helps him get better.
The final of the Australian Open 2019 between Nadal and Novak Djokovic contrasted the above-mentioned qualities of Nadal. The man who fought against the Serb earlier this year in Melbourne seemed so not-Nadal.
There was not one moment in the final when Nadal took any advantage and the World No. 1 Djokovic slapped his arch-rival with his first-ever straight-set loss in a Grand Slam final.
Nadal needs a quick solution
Even by being an injury-prone player over the years, Nadal has never shown any intentions of skipping the hard court tournaments in a year. The crushing loss in the Australian Open final did not shake his confidence as he participated at the Mexico Open, another hard-surface tournament.
After a straight-set win in the opening round, he suffered a loss to Nick Kyrgios in the next. He then withdrew from Indian Wells just ahead of his semi-final clash against Roger Federer.
After a month's gap, Nadal returned to action in Monte Carlo, a tournament which he had won in the previous three seasons. However, he ended up suffering one of the worth losses of his career.
His World No. 12 Italian opponent, Fognini, broke him in his first service game. Fognini broke Nadal back-to-back twice and led the first set 3-1.
The World No. 2 went on to lose 10 out of his next 11 matches and suddenly found himself inches close to a nightmare. The last time Nadal lost a set 6-0 in Monte Carlo was back in 2005 final, which Nadal won in four sets.
In this encounter, Fognini came inches close to repeating that when he served for the match at 6-4, 5-0 (and 40-0.) Nadal followed up with some decent tennis to save some pride as he saved three match points, broke Fognini and then held on his serve.
Fognini anyway won the match 6-4, 6-2 and qualified for his maiden Monte Carlo final, which he eventually won as he defeated Dušan Lajović in straight sets.
Nadal, whose lethal forehand has always been one of his weapons, put him down in the semi-final clash. In the whole match, while he hit five forehand winners, he made as many as 27 forehand errors.
Apart from not playing his usual disciplined tennis, his injury could also have played a role in his forgettable loss. In the whole of 2018 season, out of the 12 tournaments Nadal was supposed to play, he started in nine, withdrew from three, retired from two and finished seven.
Meanwhile, in 2019, Nadal has already retired from one, withdrew from one and is yet to win a title. His nagging injury issues for sure frustrate him. He once had admitted that he is sometimes sad when his injuries put him on a disadvantageous position against his opponents.
Especially the knee issues that have always forced him to limit his practice and playing time. It is high time that Nadal looks for a steady solution for his frustrating knee injury.
There has to be something Nadal has been doing wrong, either in his routine, training, scheduling or medical options.
Knowing Rafa, we know, he'll fight back.
A loss, which he has termed his worst on clay in recent times, will certainly force him to bounce back. For, Nadal is one of those rare players who gets inspired by an excellent performance from his opponent.
Djokovic gets frustrated seeing his opponent doing well. Federer is calm in such a case, but Nadal is above them; he loves the battle when a competitor does well because that makes him a better player himself.
He has a couple of weeks before he heads to the second clay tournament of the year – Madrid Open, where he lost in the quarters last year.
(Featured Image: Twitter/ATP Tours)
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