What’s wrong with Rafael Nadal?
It’s an audacious question to ask of someone who’s just made back-to-back finals, and who is, not to mention, the world's top-ranked men's tennis player.
And yet, many people are asking just that.
The reason is simple. Our expectations for Rafa on clay don’t merely begin and end with winning. We expect complete and utter domination. We expect perfection.
And for the last nine years, the "King of Clay" has delivered exactly that.
However, over the last few months, Nadal has shown the merest hint of vulnerability on the " terre battue." A sight hereto unseen since he exploded onto the ATP Tour back in 2005.
In Madrid, Japanese up-and-comer Kei Nishikori had the Spaniard with his back against the ropes until the newly-minted world top-10 player ran out of steam and retired in the decider with a back problem. In Rome, Rafa was taken the distance in the first three rounds before finally succumbing to Novak Djokovic in the final.
An impressive run by normal standards, but Rafa is not a normal clay-court player.
In nine years at the French Open, he has claimed a staggering eight titles, winning over 98% of his matches, having been pushed to five sets just twice in 60 outings. The only year he didn't win it, 2009, he lost to eventual runner-up Robin Soderling in round four.
On clay, he’s expected to win. And win big. Always.
But not this year.
The upside is that for the first time in almost a decade, we are looking at a genuinely wide open grand slam tournament, starting Sunday.
But is this necessarily a good thing?
Granted, watching Nadal dominate for so long was starting to get predictable, and the certainty of the end result did render the excitement of the event somewhat impotent.
But this year it isn’t only Rafa who’s looking less than himself on the red stuff.
Djokovic’s form in Rome was impressive, but with his recent wrist injuries and the devastating floods in his home Serbia weighing heavily on his mind, the world No. 2 is no sure bet to make it to the latter stages.
Roger Federer has only played one match since his third and fourth child were born earlier this month: an uncharacteristic loss to 47th-ranked Jeremy Chardy of France. One would imagine rest is difficult with four young children, and he may struggle to add to that sole Roland Garros title from 2009 and extend his record tally of 17 grand slam crowns.
Andy Murray has had injury troubles plague his entire season and has struggled to put together back-to-back wins since splitting with his coach Ivan Lendl back in March, and last year’s runner-up David Ferrer hasn’t exactly been lighting up the red dirt this spring either despite beating Nadal in Monte Carlo.
The most impressive player on the clay so far has been Nishikori. After winning the title in Barcelona, in Madrid he ran through ninth-ranked Milos Raonic and three Spaniards, including Ferrer, before eventually fading away against Nadal in the final. For a brief moment it seemed as though 24-year-old would not only beat the world No. 1, but completely dismantle him.
So, if Nishikori can get through the first few rounds with his lungs intact, you could be looking at a brand new grand slam champion.
But is that really what you want?
To many diehard fans of the game, the prospect of a Nishikori-Grigor Dimitrov final is exciting, novel and refreshing.
But for those who tune in four times a year to see the best players thrash it out at the grand slams, they want to see the very best players in the world. Or, has been the case at the French Open for so long, the very best player in the world, destroying the best players in the world as though they were club hackers.
So, what is wrong with Rafa Nadal?
Where’s the impenetrable wall of defense, the incredible turn of speed, the unfathomable production of topspin?
True, predictable results are boring, and Cinderella stories are exciting. But seeing the greatest clay-court player of all time, exhibiting ever-increasing levels of perfection is perhaps the most exciting thing of all.
Who do you think will win the French Open? Continue the conversation on Twitter with Will, or have your say in the comments box below.