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

Kansas City 1 Top 3rd Inning
San Francisco 1
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
New Orleans 10/30/14 7:25 PM
Carolina
Buffalo 2 FINAL
San Jose 1
Boston 2 3rd Prd
Toronto 0
NY Rangers 1 3rd Prd
Montreal 2
New Jersey 2 3rd Prd 19:50
Ottawa 1
Dallas 4 3rd Prd 14:09
NY Islanders 4
Detroit 2 3rd Prd 12:51
Philadelphia 2
Chicago 1 2nd Prd 19:51
St. Louis 1
Pittsburgh 1 2nd Prd 12:27
Nashville 0
Tampa Bay 1 2nd Prd 17:19
Minnesota 5
Florida 8:00 PM
Arizona
Washington 9:00 PM
Calgary
So Florida 17 FINAL
Cincinnati 34
Troy 13 FINAL
South Alabama 27
BYU 30 FINAL
Boise State 55
(6) Oregon 59 FINAL
California 41
North Texas 21 FINAL
Rice 41
UAB 17 FINAL
Arkansas 45
Rutgers 24 FINAL
(16) Nebraska 42
Maryland 7 FINAL
Wisconsin 52
Texas 0 FINAL
(11) Kansas State 23
Minnesota 24 FINAL
Illinois 28
Memphis 48 FINAL
SMU 10
North Carolina 28 FINAL
Virginia 27
San Jose St 31 FINAL
Navy 41
Northern Ill 28 FINAL
Eastern Mich 17
(25) UCLA 40 FINAL
Colorado 37
Akron 21 FINAL
Ball State 35
Massachusetts 35 FINAL
Toledo 42
Ohio U 21 FINAL
Western Mich 42
Ga Southern 69 FINAL
Georgia State 31
Kent State 3 FINAL
Miami-Ohio 10
Oregon State 14 FINAL
Stanford 38
Fla Atlantic 16 FINAL
(23) Marshall 35
Louisiana Tech 31 FINAL
Southern Miss 20
(1) Miss State 45 FINAL
Kentucky 31
Georgia Tech 56 FINAL
Pittsburgh 28
(22) West Virginia 34 FINAL
Oklahoma State 10
Texas Tech 27 FINAL
(10) TCU 82
Michigan 11 FINAL
(8) Michigan State 35
Boston College 23 FINAL
Wake Forest 17
Central Mich 20 FINAL
Buffalo 14
Vanderbilt 14 FINAL
Missouri 24
Old Dominion 51 FINAL
Western Ky 66
UNLV 20 FINAL
Utah State 34
Temple 14 FINAL
UCF 34
(15) Arizona 52 4th Qtr 8:00
Washington St 23
Texas-El Paso 17 3rd Qtr 2:15
TX-San Antonio 0
Wyoming 3 3rd Qtr 10:44
Colorado State 31
Syracuse 6 3rd Qtr 11:50
(21) Clemson 3
Texas State 7 3rd Qtr 4:10
ULM 15
(3) Ole Miss 7 3rd Qtr
(24) LSU 3
So Carolina 21 3rd Qtr
(5) Auburn 21
(4) Alabama 27 2nd Qtr 1:00
Tennessee 7
(13) Ohio State 10 2nd Qtr 11:07
Penn State 0
(20) USC 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10:59 PM
Hawaii
(2) Florida State 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Louisville
Troy 10/30/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
Cincinnati 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Tulane
Tulsa 10/31/14 7:00 PM
Memphis
Purdue 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
(17) Oklahoma 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa State
Oklahoma State 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
(10) TCU 11/1/14 2:00 AM
(22) West Virginia
Texas 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Texas Tech
Northwestern 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Iowa
Maryland 11/1/14 2:00 AM
Penn State
Air Force 11/1/14 10:30 AM
Army
ULM 11/1/14 11:00 AM
Texas A&M
Duke 11/1/14 11:00 AM
Pittsburgh
Wisconsin 11/1/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers
Rice 11/1/14 11:00 AM
FIU
(18) East Carolina 11/1/14 11:00 AM
Temple
UCF 11/1/14 11:00 AM
Connecticut
Boston College 11/1/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
North Carolina 11/1/14 11:30 AM
Miami-Florida
Washington 11/1/14 12:00 PM
Colorado
Central Mich 11/1/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Western Mich 11/1/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Western Ky 11/1/14 2:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
NC State 11/1/14 2:00 PM
Syracuse
Texas State 11/1/14 2:00 PM
New Mexico St
Virginia 11/1/14 2:30 PM
Georgia Tech
BYU 11/1/14 2:30 PM
Middle Tennessee
Indiana 11/1/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Florida 11/1/14 2:30 PM
(9) Georgia
Georgia State 11/1/14 2:30 PM
Appalachian St
Kentucky 11/1/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Kansas 11/1/14 3:00 PM
(12) Baylor
Houston 11/1/14 3:00 PM
So Florida
(20) USC 11/1/14 3:30 PM
Washington St
Arkansas State 11/1/14 4:00 PM
Idaho
South Alabama 11/1/14 4:00 PM
Louisiana
New Mexico 11/1/14 4:30 PM
UNLV
UAB 11/1/14 6:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
(5) Auburn 11/1/14 6:00 PM
(3) Ole Miss
Arkansas 11/1/14 6:00 PM
(1) Miss State
Old Dominion 11/1/14 6:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Colorado State 11/1/14 6:00 PM
San Jose St
Stanford 11/1/14 6:30 PM
(6) Oregon
Tennessee 11/1/14 6:30 PM
So Carolina
Southern Miss 11/1/14 7:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
(7) Notre Dame 11/1/14 7:00 PM
Navy
Illinois 11/1/14 7:00 PM
(13) Ohio State
(15) Arizona 11/1/14 9:30 PM
(25) UCLA
California 11/1/14 9:30 PM
Oregon State
San Diego St 11/1/14 9:30 PM
Nevada
Wyoming 11/1/14 9:45 PM
Fresno State
(19) Utah 11/1/14 10:00 PM
(14) Arizona State
Utah State 11/1/14 10:00 PM
Hawaii
Los Angeles 0 FINAL
Seattle 2
D.C. 1 FINAL
Montreal 1
Toronto FC 0 2nd Half 27:00
New England 1
Portland 0 1st Half 20:00
FC Dallas 0
Colorado 9:00 PM
Vancouver FC
Montreal 23 FINAL
Ottawa 17
Saskatchewan 27 FINAL
Calgary 40
Hamilton 24 FINAL
Toronto 26
Brt Columbia 13 5:12
Winnipeg 17
Hamilton 10/31/14 6:30 PM
Ottawa
Winnipeg 11/1/14 3:00 PM
Calgary
Brt Columbia 11/1/14 6:00 PM
Edmonton
Toronto 11/2/14 11:00 AM
Montreal

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: How will the Vikings do Sunday in Tampa Bay?

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