It is that time of the year again. The pulses start racing for football fans as the Barclays Premier League draws to a close, cricket lovers sit back to enjoy the start of the county season and tennis fans witness Rafael Nadal’s latest exploits in clay….only that the latter may just produce a few jolts this time around. Yes, for the first time in about a decade, Rafael Nadal will not start as the bookies favourite to win at the clay court masters series and in the second grand slam of the year – French Open. The certainty of Nadal winning in his fortress of Roland Garros has been up there alongside universal facts like the sun rising in the east. However, if Roland Garros was Gotham, a threat has been sent to Nadal on the back of a calling card of a Djoker.
2015 has been an unmitigated disaster for Nadal. His first tournament of the year, Qatar open, saw him lose to Michael Berrer. This was followed by his surprise loss at the Australian Open to Tomas Berdych. While losing to a player from the top ten is no shame, Nadal had beaten the Czech in all of their seventeen career encounters before, making the loss very hard to take. Nadal was already wounded and retreated to his favoured clay in Rio de Janerio. If he thought that the tournament was a sure bet, he was in for a rude surprise as Fabio Foginini stunned him in the semi finals. Nadal hit back with by winning the tournament in Buenos Aires before heading to Indian Wells.
Nadal started brightly enough in Indian Wells. There were whispers of his year finally kick starting as he registered three straight set victories in Indian Wells. He was particularly disdainful in dispatching the 13th seed Giles Simon. While fans waited in anticipation for Nadal to progress to the semi final for a possible match up against old enemy Roger Federer, big serving Canadian Milos Raonic ousted the Spaniard in a draining encounter.
Miami was no cakewalk for Nadal either as he exited to compatriot Fernando Verdasco in the third round. Such dismal showings see Nadal head into the clay court season with more apprehension than ever before.
Aside from his own poor form, Nadal’s prime reason for sleepless nights ahead of the clay court season will be the form of his rival, the formidable Novak Djokovic. For the past four years (since Djokovic took his game to the next level), the Serb has been absolutely determined to knock down Nadal’s final fortress of Roland Garros. The world number one has ended Nadal’s streaks in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid but has never been able to breach the final frontier of Roland Garros. He has painfully found out that Nadal just finds one hidden gear when it comes to defending his Roland Garros title and he looked visibly broken after losing to Nadal in the 2014 final. But being the monster he is, Djokovic shrugged the disappointment off yet again and has begun 2015 in commanding form. His titles in Indian Wells and Miami, after yet another Australian Open crown, would have shaken the foundations of the Nadal camp. Further doubt could be induced if he goes ahead and wins in Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome before they head to the prize that the Djoker craves for above all – the one at Roland Garros (completing his career grandslam as well as making him odds-on favourite for the calendar grandslam in 2015).
Whichever way the tussle for clay court supremacy goes, it will be a heroic tale to tell.