Signs of feet of clay!

Ever since the day he made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005, the clay at Roland Garros has been Rafael Nadal’s real home. He has lost there only once in a full decade — to Robin Soderling in 2009 when both his mind and body were fragile — and pocketed nine titles. So, it’s intriguing what has happened this year to a man as confident in his abilities as Nadal. He has stumbled from one failure to another since his comeback from injury at the start of the season.

In a sport as global and as competitive as tennis, it is tough for players to create fiefdoms. The ones who did succeed can be counted on our finger tips. Bjorn Borg did it in the late 1970s, winning a hat-trick of the Wimbledon-French double; Pete Sampras did it in the 1990s at Wimbledon and so did Roger Federer in the 2000s.

Yet, has any male athlete, in any sport, owned a surface, anywhere in the world, like Rafael Nadal has at the 21-acre Le Stade Roland Garros in Paris? Though the players mentioned above dominated, they did suffer the odd crushing defeat in their prime — Borg in 1981, Sampras in 1997 and Federer in 2008. But not Nadal.

Ever since the day he made his debut as a 19-year-old in 2005, the clay has been his real home. It seemed that all he had to do every year was to navigate through a field of tall weeds. Even amidst a crowd which has always been quite reluctant to support an ‘unsophisticated Spaniard’ like him, he felt safe doing it. In the process, he created history but was never burdened by the weight of it. He lost there only once in a full decade — to Robin Soderling in 2009 when both his mind and body were fragile — and pocketed nine titles.

So, it’s intriguing what has happened this year to a man as confident in his abilities as Nadal. He has stumbled from one failure to another since his comeback from injury at the start of the season. He looks so far removed from the universe he once ruled and instead seems to be inhabiting one which is full of contradictions. His body was all along tipped to break down sooner than his mind, but as ironic as it sounds now, he spends most of his time explaining away his mental issues.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen (at the French Open),” he said after his defeat at the Rome Masters, but hastened to add, “I feel great. No, I’m not tired. I’m fine.”

These days, the 28-year-old’s routine forehands either end up hitting the bottom of the net or are shanked into the audience. As a consequence, his losses no longer come only against tennis kings like Novak Djokovic. This year, the rank and file have beaten him. Fabio Fognini twice, Andy Murray, who had only one clay court title till then, once and Stan Wawrinka, who hadn’t won a set in his five matches on clay against Nadal, once.

In some ways, the situation seems a tad similar to the one that prevailed in 2011. Djokovic was on a bull run then. Djokovic is on a bull run now. The Serb had beaten him on clay both times they had met that year — the finals in Madrid and Rome which were straight set-affairs. This time he beat Nadal in straight sets in the Monte Carlo semifinals.

He entered the French Open then on the back of a 39-match winning streak, with four Masters’ titles and 13-0 against the top-10. In 2015, he is on a 22-match winning streak, with four Masters’ titles, including Monte Carlo and Rome, and 14-1 against the top-10.

Even as all these point to a title-challenge from Djokovic, it didn’t really happen then. But it looks likely to happen now. Nadal, then, and in the subsequent years, found ways to arrest slides of varying proportions, dust off the rust after injury layoffs and present a fully polished texture in time for Paris. But now, for the first time in 11 years, he will go to Paris having not won a clay title in the lead-up and with a ranking prefix of No.7.

Djokovic’s transformation from a genuine threat on clay to a top contender is almost complete and has, crucially, coincided with Nadal’s regression.

Ever since the shattering loss in the 2014 Open final to Nadal, Djokovic has gone from strength to strength. With every match he has bred belief. He seldom breaks in tight situations, has learnt to win ugly if need be and he traces the home stretches almost always in a canter.

“The only thing that I am sure of is I’m going to try,” said Nadal. “The goal in Paris will always be the same one. I feel I’m playing well. I didn’t play with nerves most of the time the last three weeks, and that’s the most important thing for me. If I am able to control that, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m going to fight for it.”

In effect, the 2015 French Open will be a battle between form and history. Can Nadal, who is 90-1 in best-of-five-set matches on clay, retrace his victorious step on the red dirt or will a new champion in Djokovic occupy the turf for his maiden title?

“Regardless of what anyone says to me he’s the favourite,” said Federer “The guy’s only lost (at Roland Garros) once in 10 years. There’s no way past that guy being the absolute favourite for that tournament.

“Novak at this point probably has to win, with the results he’s shown this year. Maybe Rafa isn’t having the same success as before but nevertheless that remains the situation for me. But it’s all talk because in the end his racquet’s going to do the talking.”

Interestingly the 33-year-old Swiss, after a runner-up finish in Rome, doesn’t want to count himself out too.

“I don’t want to get myself too down because it was a good tournament for me...I really hope it’s not just the two of them. I hope there’s going to be some other guys who will be a part of that group and I hope in particular myself.”