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Roland Garros 2019: Has Rafael Nadal rescued his French Open chances by winning Rome?

Leye Aduloju in ATP Tour 21 May 2019
  • Rafael Nadal claimed his first title of the season in Rome, ending a run of four consecutive semi-final exits
  • Is the King of Clay now the firm favourite for the French Open title?
  • The French Open is live from Roland Garros from 26 May - 9 June
Rafael Nadal. (Photo Andrea Staccioli / Insidefoto/Sipa USA)

For Rafael Nadal and clay-court tournaments, success means only one thing: Winning the title. 

Other players may get away with runner-up finishes and semi-finals, but for Nadal, on this surface, there is often no middle ground. Victory has become the norm, any other result is the stark oddity, and often sparks a worldwide panic amongst his fan base, and a frenzied media inquest into what might be wrong with the great King of Clay.

Nadal had been almost untouchable on clay in the previous two seasons, winning a staggering 48 of 50 matches, but within a month of clay-court tennis in 2019, he had already lost more matches than he had done in 2017 and 2018 combined. The 32-year-old suffered successive semi-final defeats in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, raising serious and justifiable concerns over his chances of defending his Roland Garros crown.

Nadal was particularly dismayed by his Monte Carlo defeat to Fabio Fognini, describing the performance as the worst match he'd ever played on clay, but he played it remarkably cool after that, declaring after Barcelona and Madrid losses to Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas that he was happy with the level at which he was operating.

"Against Fognini I played the worst match probably in 14 years on clay. Today I played a good match of tennis. It [was] a good level of tennis this afternoon. I played against a great opponent”, he said after losing to Thiem in Barcelona. “After this week my confidence is back,” Nadal continued. 
“I really believe that I made very good improvements to create a good base to try to achieve my goals during the next couple of weeks."

I'm not sure if he truly meant that or if he was just trying to manage a mini-crisis, but even he would have struggled to put a positive spin on the situation had he had another "failure" in Rome.

To be fair, Nadal did improve through the clay-court season. Monte Carlo was his first tournament back after a knee injury that forced him out of Indian Wells, and kept him away from the Miami Open, and he looked off-colour in the Principality, and was eventually dumped out by Fognini. He played better in Barcelona, and only fell to an inspired Dominic Thiem- a man who had beaten him on clay in each of the last three seasons, so nothing to see there- and he was also good in Madrid, until he ran into Tsitsipas. I thought there was a nervousness about him in that semi-final against Tsitsipas, particularly in the third set when he made some very poor forehand errors.

Those previous semi-final defeats would have left a scar on him, however small, and that played a big part in his Madrid loss to Tsitsipas, who was excellent on the day, but was also helped by an opponent who appeared unsure of himself in the critical stages. 

Nadal needed Rome for reassurance, and he got it in style!

Rome was the near perfect week for Nadal- he got some crushing wins early on, just like the old days, earned revenge against Tsitsipas in the semi-finals to break the last four jinx, and finished things off with a convincing victory over Novak Djokovic- the main pretender to his Roland Garros throne.

Even against Djokovic, there were elements of nervousness towards the end of the second set, which cost him the set, but the great Spaniard did an excellent job of regrouping to dominate the final set. Yes, Djokovic wasn't quite at his best after his marathon late night wins over Juan Martin del Potro and Diego Schwartzman in the quarter and semi-finals, but this was all about the result for Nadal.

His clay-court invincibility might have slightly thinned after his previous semi-final defeats, but the great man has reinforced his status as the King of Clay, and now goes into Paris as the firm favourite for the title.

“You don't complain when you play bad, when you have problems, when you have pains. You put [on] the right attitude [and] the right face. You go on court every day with the passion to keep practising,” said Nadal. "That's something that I did during all of my career…that’s why I was able to always have the chance to be back. Here we are. Important title, important moment. Now is the moment to keep going”, Rafael Nadal.

The French Open is live from Roland Garros from 26 May - 9 June

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Roland Garros 2019: Has Rafael Nadal rescued his French Open chances by winning Rome?

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