David Wheaton: Nadal vulnerable? We'll believe when we see it

  • Updated: May 25, 2014 - 8:49 AM

The master of the clay court has been uncommonly reflective in recent months.

hide

Defending champion Spain's Rafael Nadal smiles during a training session for the French Open tennis tournament, at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, Friday, May 23, 2014. The French Open tennis championship will start Sunday. (AP Photo/Bertrand Combaldieu)

Photo: Bertrand Combaldieu, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

CameraStar Tribune photo galleries

Cameraview larger

 

If “90 percent of tennis is half mental” (to slightly misquote Yogi Berra), then Rafael Nadal lowered his chances of winning a ninth Roland Garros title by a few percentage points when he stated the following before the start of the spring clay court season:

“I’m not going to win 14 [titles in a row]. There’s a start for everybody and there’s an end. I know that I’m not going to keep winning all the tournaments on clay forever, and [there is] going to arrive a day when I’m not going to win one more … hopefully not yet.”

And every good Minnesotan said, “Now that’s interesting.”

The European clay court season is the time of year when Nadal has dominated — no, obliterated — the tour as no player ever has: eight titles in Monte Carlo, the same in Barcelona, six in Rome, three in Madrid and eight at Roland Garros. If Rafa didn’t win one of these tournaments in a given year, it was likely because he hadn’t entered.

So what’s his point — that we shouldn’t expect him to hoist the French trophy at age 50? Well, ha, ha, ha. He couldn’t do that! Or could he?

Such is the mystique of Rafael Nadal. Just shy of 28 years old, he has attained such otherworldly status on clay that no one could presume to know the how long and the how many of his career. The sun seemed to be at high noon over his clay court empire. No one was even contemplating dusk. So for the “Rey of Clay” to suddenly inform us that he, too, is going the way of all flesh?

Transparency is a wonderful quality, but tennis doesn’t offer any trophies for it.

Rafa found that out soon enough when his results this spring tracked his confession. He lost in the quarters of Monte Carlo and Barcelona. He won Madrid, but only barely after his final-round opponent retired with an injury. He lost in the final of Rome. This still would be an amazing clay court season for anyone … anyone except Nadal.

A reporter asked him in Rome to explain his unprecedented struggles on clay. Would he blame an injury? Were his shoes not fitting? Strings too loose? After all, super-champions rarely admit decline, even to themselves.

“Get used to [it],” Nadal said. “Because with the years it is the normal thing, and in the end everybody suffers. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of the careers of everybody.”

This may be admirable realism, but here is how every player in the locker room interpreted his words: “Hmmm, maybe I can beat Nadal on clay.”

One rarely wins a tennis match without the belief it can be done. Rafa’s invincible reputation on clay has been every bit as much of a weapon as his fearsome forehand and tenacity. Over his career, a great majority of his opponents have awakened lacking the belief that they could conquer him. And then they went out and proved themselves correct.

But now players are smelling blood. Not the least of whom is Rafa’s main rival, Novak Djokovic. Last year, Djokovic effervesced that beating Nadal in the final of Monte Carlo was one of the highlights of his career. Last week, Novak beat Rafa in Rome and it was no big deal.

Contrast Rafa’s mindset to that of another superstar, 33-year-old Serena Williams, who after winning Rome painted this metaphor: “I am like fine wine, my tennis is getting better with age.” She won’t be taking home the humility award, but she will be entering Paris full of confidence in defense of her title. With her ongoing domination of the tour, there is no reason to think she won’t.

As for Nadal, maybe he is just attempting to transfer expectations to someone else. If so, he’s accomplished that — world No. 1 Djokovic enters the only major he has never won as the slight favorite. Still, Rafa has lost just one match in nine years in Paris. Three out of five sets is his favored distance. Court Chatrier is his happy place. Surely, Rafa has not gone crazy.

Or maybe he’s just crazy like a fox.

 

During his 13-year professional career, Minnesota’s David Wheaton reached the third round in singles and semifinals in doubles at the French Open. David is now a radio host and author. Find out more at davidwheaton.com.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Tennessee 7:25 PM
Jacksonville
Philadelphia 12/20/14 3:30 PM
Washington
San Diego 12/20/14 7:25 PM
San Francisco
Minnesota 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Baltimore 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Houston
Detroit 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Chicago
Cleveland 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Atlanta 12/21/14 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Green Bay 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Kansas City 12/21/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
New England 12/21/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 12/21/14 3:05 PM
St. Louis
Buffalo 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Oakland
Indianapolis 12/21/14 3:25 PM
Dallas
Seattle 12/21/14 7:30 PM
Arizona
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
Atlanta 127 FINAL
Cleveland 98
Phoenix 111 FINAL
Charlotte 106
Dallas 117 FINAL
Detroit 106
Utah 105 FINAL
Miami 87
Orlando 92 FINAL
Boston 109
Brooklyn 89 FINAL
Toronto 105
Memphis 117 FINAL
San Antonio 116
Milwaukee 97 FINAL
Portland 104
Houston 115 FINAL
Denver 111
Indiana 100 FINAL
LA Clippers 102
Ottawa 2 FINAL
New Jersey 0
Boston 3 FINAL(OT)
Minnesota 2
Dallas 2 FINAL
Vancouver 0
Langston 65 FINAL
North Texas 78
Delaware State 72 FINAL
St Francis-NY 64
James Madison 72 FINAL
Ball State 52
SIU Edwardsville 65 FINAL
Campbell 70
St Francis-PA 67 FINAL
Duquesne 52
North Florida 77 FINAL
Florida State 93
Catawba 69 FINAL
George Mason 99
Ferrum 48 FINAL
High Point 106
Hampton 55 FINAL
Illinois 73
Gardner-Webb 65 FINAL
Jacksonville 68
Longwood 60 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 71
Arkansas State 69 FINAL
Miss State 55
Tennessee 72 FINAL
NC State 83
NC A&T 55 FINAL
Ohio State 97
Manhattan 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 65
Robert Morris 57 FINAL
Toledo 83
Char Southern 58 FINAL
Wofford 64
Kennesaw St 90 FINAL
Youngstown St 84
Barber-Scotia 52 FINAL
NC Central 108
Detroit 70 FINAL
UCF 75
Liberty 70 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 73
TX A&M-CC 73 FINAL
Denver 83
Ark-Pine Bluff 61 FINAL
Houston 56
UT Martin 54 FINAL
Illinois State 64
Milligan 76 FINAL
Louisiana 115
Abilene Christian 44 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 83
USC Upstate 73 FINAL
Memphis 83
Alcorn State 56 FINAL
Murray State 94
Central Mich 80 FINAL
Northwestern 67
Georgia State 54 FINAL
Old Dominion 58
TX-Pan American 69 FINAL
Saint Louis 75
Ill-Chicago 46 FINAL
SMU 67
Texas State 60 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 66
SC State 39 FINAL
Texas Tech 101
Missouri State 70 FINAL
Tulsa 74
Chicago State 60 FINAL
Western Ky 75
Morehead State 50 FINAL
Green Bay 66
Northern Colorado 82 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 92
Winthrop 62 FINAL
Auburn 80
New Mexico St 55 FINAL
Baylor 66
San Diego St 62 FINAL
Cincinnati 71
Eastern Mich 46 FINAL
Michigan State 66
Loyola Marymount 58 FINAL
Stanford 67
Incarnate Word 82 FINAL
Grand Canyon 80
Northeastern 58 FINAL
Cal Poly 60
Central Arkansas 55 FINAL
New Mexico 76
Howard 45 FINAL
Pepperdine 53
Portland 73 FINAL
UNLV 75
CS-Northridge 56 FINAL
Oregon 79
Grambling St 38 FINAL
Washington 86
Nevada 12/20/14 10:00 AM
Louisiana
Utah State 12/20/14 1:20 PM
Texas-El Paso
(23) Utah 12/20/14 2:30 PM
Colorado State
Western Mich 12/20/14 4:45 PM
Air Force
South Alabama 12/20/14 8:15 PM
Bowling Green
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Western Carolina 79 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 66
(21) Miss State 66 FINAL
Louisiana 51
(25) DePaul 109 FINAL
Loyola-Chicago 84
Liberty 64 FINAL
NC State 67
Elon 77 FINAL
Campbell 51
Akron 73 FINAL
UCF 64
Richmond 77 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 67
Montana 70 FINAL
Seattle 64
(7) Stanford 46 FINAL
Chattanooga 54
Florida A&M 69 FINAL
Southern U 80
Oklahoma 72 FINAL
(13) Duke 92
Savannah State 56 FINAL
Auburn 62
Northern Colorado 43 FINAL
South Florida 84
Youngstown St 73 FINAL
Robert Morris 65
Siena 75 FINAL
Sacred Heart 65
Vermont 63 FINAL
St Francis-NY 61
(1) South Carolina 69 FINAL
Hampton 49
Fla Gulf Coast 91 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 46
Texas Southern 92 FINAL
Houston Baptist 80
Northwestern 88 FINAL
UNLV 84
NC A&T 70 FINAL
Appalachian St 72
NC Central 52 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 67
Drexel 50 FINAL
Quinnipiac 74
Cincinnati 52 FINAL
Northern Ky 66
Alabama State 53 FINAL
Georgia Tech 77
Morehead St 69 FINAL
USC Upstate 75
Arkansas State 59 FINAL
Kent State 44
American Univ 60 FINAL
Manhattan 52
UNC Greensboro 60 FINAL
St Bonaventure 78
Arkansas-Monticello 56 FINAL
Northwestern St 61
Prairie View 70 FINAL
Sam Houston St 51
McNeese State 59 FINAL
(3) Texas 76
Yale 90 FINAL
Wagner 65
Oakland 61 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 54
Eastern Kentucky 62 FINAL
Alabama A&M 56
SIU-Edwardsville 47 FINAL
Northern Ill 69
McMurry 25 FINAL
TX-Arlington 82
Portland 65 FINAL
Eastern Washington 72
North Texas 42 FINAL
San Francisco 60

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is your favorite pro sports coach in the Twin Cities?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close