Is Rafael Nadal losing his grip on clay?

After losing in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals in straight sets to Fabio Fognini a week ago, Rafael Nadal fell at the same stage in similar fashion to Dominic Thiem at the Barcelona Open on Saturday.

Thiem has emerged as the best player on clay after Nadal in the last three-four years, and he has won eight of his 12 titles on the surface.   -  AFP

Is this the year that Rafael Nadal’s hegemony over the ATP Tour’s biggest clay court tournaments – and clay by extension – is finally challenged?

The world No. 2 lost in the Monte Carlo Masters semifinals in straight sets to Fabio Fognini, and then fell at the same stage in similar fashion on Saturday to Dominic Thiem at the Barcelona Open – both tournaments, along with the French Open, that he has won 11 times each, an ATP record.

Only twice since 2005, when he won his first titles at each of these three tournaments, has Nadal entered the French Open without winning either Monte Carlo or Barcelona. In 2014, he dropped two sets on the way to the Roland Garros title, winning more than twice the number of games his seven opponents did. But in 2015, a rampant Novak Djokovic beat Nadal 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 in the quarterfinals.

READ | Nadal loses to Thiem, crashes out of Barcelona Open

The Spaniard returned to form in 2016, winning both Monte Carlo and Barcelona for three straight years and the French Open in 2017 and 2018.

‘One of my worst matches on clay’

Nadal described his loss to the Italian Fognini at Monte Carlo as “one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years.”

After going up 3-1 in the opening set, Nadal lost 11 of the next 14 games as the eventual champion booked a place in the final.

Just four days later, Nadal was seemingly set to lose two consecutive matches on clay for the first time in his 19-year tennis career, but he prevailed in three sets against Argentine journeyman Leonardo Mayer in the round of 32.

Nadal had served for the opening set at 5-4, but was broken by the world No. 63. He again served for the set at 6-5 in the tiebreak, but Mayer came out on top at 9-7. The top seed then broke Mayer once in the second set and twice in the third to close out the match 6-4, 6-2.

A rarity on clay

When Nadal lost the opening set to Mayer on Wednesday, it was only the third time in his career – spanning nearly 19 years and 1,124 matches with 932 wins before the Barcelona Open – that he had lost three consecutive sets on his favourite surface. The first time that had happened was 10 years into his career, when he lost the final of the Madrid Open to Novak Djokovic in straight sets and the first set of his round of 32 tie against Paolo Lorenzi at the Italian Open. The second was when Djokovic dismantled him at the 2015 French Open.

Nadal was seeking a record-extending 12th title at Monte Carlo and was doing so at Barcelona – and will be attempting the same at Roland Garros in a month’s time. History is heavily stacked in his favour, and Nadal could emerge champion again at the French Open in similar fashion to 2014.

But, as was the case in 2015, Djokovic could stand in the way of the King of Clay. The Serbian world No. 1 is the holder of the other three Grand Slams, and his form suggests he could complete another “Djoker Slam” – holding all four titles simultaneously but not in a single calendar year, a feat he previously achieved in 2015-16.

A pretender no more?

Thiem has emerged as the best player on clay after Nadal in the last three-four years, and he has won eight of his 12 titles on the surface. In March, the Austrian won his first Masters 1000 title – on hard court – at Indian Wells.

But more importantly, Thiem reached the final of the 2018 French Open final, where he lost in straight sets to Nadal. Later in the year, he pushed the Spaniard to five sets in the US Open quarterfinals, which included a bagel of the second seed in the opener.

Nadal’s loss on Saturday is not only an indicator of the King of Clay’s grip on the surface easing; it is also one of Thiem’s emerging ascendancy on it.