We all know Rafael Nadal, number one in the world, King of Clay and all that, can and should win in Madrid. He's won it the last two years. He's 302-23 on clay, what Tom Perrotta of the Wall Street Journal rightly described as "absurd." So why is everyone worried?
Perrotta's article is titled "This Isn't the Nadal We All Know." On the ATP's website, it's "Nadal Hoping to Banish Doubts in Madrid." Over at Grantland, Louisa Thomas writes about Rafa's "Land of Nod," as in, nodding off, like he's in the midst of a bad dream and needs to brush off the cobwebs like he knocks the red clay out of the soles of his shoes before serving.
That's because Nadal is heading into Madrid having lost in the quarterfinals of the last two clay court tournaments he's been in, to guys he's routinely beaten.
Here's how Perrotta sets up the conundrum:
The first defeat came against David Ferrer in Monte Carlo (where Nadal has won eight titles). Nadal had previously beaten Ferrer 17 straight times on clay. Then, last week in Barcelona, where Nadal had won eight titles and 41 consecutive matches dating back to 2005, he lost to Nicolás Almagro, who had never beaten Nadal in his career.
To those of us long accustomed to the logic of Nadal + Clay Court = Victory, just like 1 + 1 = 2, this New Math answer of Loss doesn't compute, especially when there's no apparent injury hampering him.
Nadal's knees aren't broken this time. What appears to be broken is his spirit. He's suffering from Tennis Hate.
Nadal tried to seize control of the storyline today. As reported on ATPworldtour.com, he told reporters in Madrid, “When you lose, you have a hard moment, you have more doubts. But that's what happened. I've already said it several times. I didn't try to win Monte Carlo 12 times or Barcelona 12 times. Maybe that isn’t normal. This is the reality of the situation. Maybe it's normal to lose three times in the quarter-finals."
Wait a minute, is Nadal now second-guessing his past success? "Maybe that isn't normal"? Yes, it's extraordinary for most people, but it's been normal for him.
Haters, this doesn't sound like a winning mental strategy to me. Does it to you? Hell, I've tried this! I've caught myself saying variations of it.
- "Maybe I'm supposed to lose to my husband. After all, he's a guy and I'm a girl, and guys are just better at this eye-hand coordination thing."
- "Maybe I'm not supposed to win any matches my first year playing on a USTA league."
- "Maybe I'm not supposed to win, ever, because I am just not very good at this."
- "Maybe I'm not supposed to win because winning is for really competitive, bossy, control freaks and I'm just here to have fun."
My colleague, WNYC digital editor and 5.0 tennis player Caitlin Thompson, thinks Nadal's back-to-back quarterfinal losses to lesser players means he's in real trouble.
"For a streakier player, such as Serena Williams, this would not be a big deal at all," she said in an e-mail. Williams is not as "emotionally invested" in a loss at a lesser tournament than she is in a Slam. "For Nadal, who famously plays every point as intensely as the last, all losses are equal, which means they're all equally troubling.
"When I was a junior tennis player, something my coaches tried very hard to instill in me was the idea of belief. Most matches, they'd tell me, were lost or won before the players struck the first ball - the winner having been decided by [the person whose confidence] was stronger. By thinking you could win, you made yourself able to win, and often did win.
"The big players - Rafa and Serena and all the others who dominate the rest of the field - have the biggest belief. And sometimes more important, they're helped out by their opponents lack of belief. Nadal's losing record indicates he's having a hard time - and he knows it."
Nadal said he hopes the energy he draws from playing in Madrid, a tournament he describes as "special," will boost his confidence. He said he's also training hard, looking to make little changes.
"I don't think I have to change many things," he said. "I think I can change very small things, and the change can be quite drastic and quite big."This is a great tip, Haters. You don't have to throw the racquet over the fence. I find I load up too much on all the things I'm going to do to win the next point. "Okay, watch the ball and hit through the ball and breathe as you hit and move your feet." And then what happens? None of the above. I'm too busy trying to remember what the first item on the To Do list was to even notice the ball coming over the net.
"I hope that it just works out," said Nadal. That's all you can do in this game, right? That hope-y, change-y thing. Hey, it worked for our nation's first black president. "If things don't come out well, we will go to Rome; if things don't work out there, we will go to Paris
Onward, through May, through the clay.