If Rafael Nadal wanted to put a little pressure on himself, he couldn’t have picked a better time than last week, when he lost to a fellow Spaniard on a red clay court for the second time in as many weeks.
A few weeks ago it was David Ferrer bouncing Nadal out of Monte Carlo. Last week in Barcelona, it was Nicolas Almagro, against whom Nadal had a 10-0 record, sticking the knife in a little deeper in the tournament that offers a Spanish winner the Iberian bragging rights for an entire year.
Could it be that Nadal will run that streak to three losses in a tournament that begins Sunday, the combined Madrid Masters?
It may seem preposterous; after all, before Nadal had won 66 of his last 67 matches against Spaniards on clay going into Monte Carlo. He hadn’t lost even a set in Barcelona since 2008. After the loss to Almagro, Nadal said, “I felt I did a lot of things well to win, but at the end [there] remained a little bit [missing].”
That reference to “a little bit missing” has to trouble Nadal’s camp and his partisans, for the one thing you could always expect from Nadal is maximum interest. Total desire. Unqualified determination. After the loss in Barcelona, Nadal sounded world-weary. How often can the King of Clay rush out to the gates of his castle to lope the heads off the barbarians?
To make his situation even tougher, Madrid is not a particularly great place for Nadal to regroup. He’s won Monte Carlo (as well as Barcelona) eight times. Before the Almagro match, Nadal had a 41-match winning streak going in Barcelona. He’s the defending champ in Madrid, but in 2012 he was a peevish third-round loser on that ill-fated “smurf” (blue) clay, and the previous year (2011) he was spanked in the Caja Magica by Novak Djokovic. If you’re inclined to write off that one-two punch of Djokovic playing out of his gourd and the unfortunate experiment with blue clay, be warned: Nadal did win Madrid in 2010, but the last time he won before that was way back in 2005. At the time, Madrid was an event played on indoor hard courts.
Madrid has always been the weak link in Nadal’s otherwise spectacular record during the Euroclay season. He was 48-2 going into Monte Carlo this year and 42-2 at the start of Barcelona. He’s 41-2 in Rome (which follows Madrid), but a more earthbound 30-8 in Madrid.
No event on the spring circuit in Europe challenges Nadal like Madrid. You can put some of it down to the altitude (which makes the balls fly with extra zip), but don’t discount the influence of personal history. Players feel more comfortable and confident at some events than others.
To add to the pressure Nadal will face in Madrid, Djokovic has dramatically closed the gap in the rankings race. The top spot is on the line, although Nadal would have to lose before the quarterfinals and Djokovic would have to win the trophy in order for their positions to flip. It’s an unlikely outcome, but far from an impossible one.
Having Djokovic for a shadow may be just what Nadal needs, but no matter how things work out in Madrid, keep in mind that for Nadal it’s all about Paris and the French Open. And it’s unlikely that “a little bit” will go missing there.