PARIS – Rafael Nadal targets a ninth French Open title with his lethal clay-court game and enduring confidence facing their biggest crisis in a decade.
The Spaniard, whose stirring comeback from a seventh-month injury layoff was one of 2013′s headline acts, boasts a formidable record of eight titles, 59 wins and just one defeat on Roland Garros’s famed crushed red brick.
But the cracks are beginning to show.
With his 28th birthday just around the corner, the world No. 1 has spent the spring strangely disoriented on the same European clay courts where he once conducted business with a deadly if humble precision.
His defeat to world No. 2 Novak Djokovic — the man many expect to dethrone him as king of Paris on June 8 — in Sunday’s Rome Masters final marked the first time since 2004 that he had lost three clay-court matches in the same year.
Nadal, a seven-time Rome champion, was taken to three sets in four of his five matches in the Italian capital.
He successfully defended his Madrid Masters title but only after Kei Nishikori, having won the first set of the final, was forced to retire with a back injury.
Before that, Nadal was knocked out in the quarterfinals in Barcelona by compatriot Nicolas Almagro and exited the Monte Carlo Masters also at the last-eight stage at the hands of David Ferrer.
At both those events, Nadal was an eight-time champion.
But Nadal is not reaching for the panic button just yet. He still boasts a 13-4 clay-court record over Djokovic, including victory in the 2012 Roland Garros final and in the 2013 semi-finals where he had trailed 4-2 in the fifth set.
“Two weeks ago, my chances to play well in Roland Garros were not very high. But I will arrive now more encouraged,” insisted Nadal, who will nevertheless go to Paris with just one European clay-court title for the first time in 10 years.
Djokovic is the man in ascendancy. The right wrist injury which forced him to miss Madrid was forgotten in his fight back from a set down to beat Nadal in Rome.
The Serb fired an incredible 46 winners to the Spaniard’s 15 — an almost unheard of brutality on a slow clay court with Djokovic keeping Nadal on the backfoot with his willingness to come to the net and confidence in his ability to hit forehand winners.
Djokovic, who still needs a French Open title to complete a career Grand Slam, has now beaten Nadal in their last four meetings.
He has also captured five of the last seven Masters and could reclaim the world top ranking by the end of Roland Garros.
“I played with no pain and increased the level of tennis as the week in Rome went on,” said Djokovic, who turns 27 on Thursday.
“Winning against Rafa in the final of a big tournament on clay, his preferred surface, is definitely a confidence booster.”