Does the French Open need an invincible Rafael Nadal?
He's still the "King of Clay," but Rafael Nadal's crown has slipped a little this year.
May 23rd, 2014
04:16 PM ET

Does the French Open need an invincible Rafael Nadal?

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.

soundoff (33 Responses)
  1. luke

    I think that you're exactly right. The expectations for are too high. He is a human as you an me. You can't always win. That's in each sport the same. In football, in tennis etc. For me Rafa is of course a big role model and a great man. I hope he wins roland garros this year too. Vamos RAFA! 🙂

    May 23, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • Pats Fan

      not quite the same, in football the NFL goes out of its way to achieve parity, far as I know there is no such parity in tennis.

      May 24, 2014 at 6:53 pm | Reply
  2. spencer

    My bets are still with Roger Federer – he is not done yet and he should get # 18 – Good Luck to all!

    May 23, 2014 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • yoyo

      I'm sorry. King of Clay will win. Federer is done, that's for sure now.

      June 1, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Reply
  3. MWarp

    I hope Nadal loses to Wawrinka again, although this time I hope he doesn't pull the "ow my back" routine again. It gets

    May 23, 2014 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • Xao Vin

      So you hope him to loose, not Wawrinka to win, right? what an unhappy life you must have

      June 10, 2014 at 9:23 pm | Reply
  4. Keith_la Rioja_Spain

    No, I do not think it is a bad thing that Rafael Nadal is not as strong as he was. All best sport is when it is open, and there are other players who can get in there and win big tournaments. OK, so I have enjoyed fantastic matches between Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, And hope to see more. But it is, for me, totally welcoming that new players can beat these players, like the Rising Star from the land of the Rising Sun – Nishikori is certainly going to be right up there among the very best. Maybe also Dmitrov – I said "maybe". We shall see.
    As for the women, it's nice to see a new player getting in there, and hope to see more of the Romanian Simona Halep.

    May 23, 2014 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  5. Edward

    It is obvious that Rafa has slowed down quite a bit. If you look at Djokovic's winners vs Rafa's in Rome, Rafa was humiliated. Any injury in sport takes its toll. We say that players return to top form, but major injuries still hold them back from their former greatness.

    May 23, 2014 at 9:55 pm | Reply
  6. Tierp

    How can something THAT hot be bad for tennis. Rafa is a bull!!!

    May 23, 2014 at 11:40 pm | Reply
  7. dav

    A weak Nadal is the best thing that can happen in Men's tennis right now. Nadal's uninspired, grinding style takes away the joy of the game. Also blatant coaching from the stands from uncle toni, gamesmanship, prolonged delays on changeovers and between serves all have cast a shadow on the game and inability to penalize a cheater because of his ranking. The sooner he leaves the game, the better.

    May 24, 2014 at 12:39 am | Reply
    • Bertha Peterson

      I am of the older generation, I had never watched tennis, until one of my sons introduced me to the game. I was mesmerized by this creature moving on the clay with the grace of a matador. Since that moment I have never stopped watching him play.I will continue to do so as long as he plays.

      May 29, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Reply
    • Mark Anderson

      Yes, it was so much better to watch Sampras and Courier play and have the ball go over the net a maximum three times.

      June 7, 2014 at 3:40 am | Reply
    • B.S.Vidyaranya

      Please don't be too harsh on one of the finest players the game has produced. Forget his performance on clay; but look at his records on grass. He has reached 5 finals at the Wimbledon and has defeated Roger Fedrer both on grass & other courts when Roger's game was at its best! In fact, Nadal was the only player who challenged Roger, while the rest were virtually sitting ducks!

      I agree that he has some OCBs (Obsessive Compulsive Disorders) and many psychologists have observed that he should not be booed and further have even suggested that it should go unnoticed. He is actually god's gift to the game of tennis. He is simply determination personified. Please don't be harsh on small errors which he commits on the court that may look a bit unpleasant that's to be viewed as a disorder, after all not taken advantage of.

      June 21, 2014 at 5:58 pm | Reply
    • mert

      Nadal is one of the most exciting players in tennis. He is why tennis is now more popular than ever.

      June 22, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Reply
    • Barbara Ball

      Rafa is the nicest guy on the tour including the ego driven Roger.

      July 31, 2014 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • RF

      Are you sure of what you are talking about... Watching long rallies is always good and fun. Game doesnt always mean putting on many aces and winners. If there is no proper defense... there is no point giving credit to winners

      August 30, 2014 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  8. Patrick

    If you are going to write for CNN you should do a much better job of checking your facts

    1. It is certainly not called "terre bateau"!!!!!
    2. In 2009 nadal wasn't "sidelined with injury". He lost to the eventual finalist

    Please, if you are clueless about a subject, don't bother writing about it

    May 24, 2014 at 3:46 am | Reply
    • garymorleyCNN

      You are correct. No. 2 was a mistake by the editor, thank you for pointing it out.

      May 27, 2014 at 9:26 am | Reply
  9. atsunaga

    As a Japanese, I hope Kei win the title at Paris, but, frankly speaking, he is not yet physically strong enough to get though 5 setter tough grand slam. Top 2, Nadal and Djokovic, still have big margin to win, considering their physical strength.

    May 24, 2014 at 6:44 am | Reply
  10. Chris Fallet

    Clay court, in french, translates as ' terre battue ' : I'd never heard of ' terre bateau ' ... although it's meaninglessly 'cute' !

    May 24, 2014 at 8:00 am | Reply
  11. Peter

    first of all, clay is NOT 'terre bateau' (nothing to do with a boat) but 'TERRE BATTUE'. I couldn't disagree more with the rest of the article. it is refreshing to see dominance broken. frankly, I got tired of the Nadal 'invincibility'. we are ready for some fresh faces after all these years. and one more, it wasn't Nishikori's lungs that kept him from winning in Madrid, it was his back.

    May 24, 2014 at 8:00 am | Reply
  12. george

    I hear ya Spencer.. Id love Federer to retire with #20 nice round number.. but now im realistically hoping for #18 too.
    He's the perfect skinny guy turned hero character.. like karate kid fighting all these muscular bullies and still winning with style and technique!

    May 24, 2014 at 11:20 am | Reply
  13. Jay Thacker

    Nasal who else? He is the greatest in the game of tennis , world icon . The biggest draw in the game.
    Just because he has lost the last three matches , people are writing him off , shame

    May 26, 2014 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  14. Mell

    I am a Nadal fan. I'd like to see him win after that let down at the Australian Open. Nadal is a great champion because of his heart and fight. He isn't perfect, which is why he's so great. Tennis is a SPORT. It is not ballet. It's more than technique and style. Nadal has proven that the human factors matter-heart, fight, motivation. He has come back time and again when people wrote him off, and he has proven his critics wrong–usually the Fedex fans. He is unique. Tennis needs him.

    May 28, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  15. Jenny

    I am a big fan of nadal and dispite his resent lost on clay i believe he Will win the frence open.

    May 30, 2014 at 2:09 am | Reply
  16. Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Wishing tennis stars, fans, match officials and the organizers an exciting edition of the French Open.

    May 31, 2014 at 5:28 pm | Reply
  17. Cas

    A pointless commentary. Didn't actually answer the question... The French Open has always been a wild card tournament. That is what makes it as exciting, if not more, than wimbledon..

    June 1, 2014 at 1:00 am | Reply
  18. Rodny

    There are no dubt about Novak Dojokovic success in France Open. He is mentally and physically much stronger,
    than some months before. The great final of modern era tennis "Titans" is expecting us again!

    June 4, 2014 at 10:18 am | Reply
  19. linda

    Iam big fan of Nadal.Iwould like to see him to win again.He is a great champion.King of Clay........

    June 5, 2014 at 1:13 am | Reply
  20. butthurt

    Before Nadal, when all tennis was Roger Federer and supporting cast, I was like "meh.." Honestly, tennis was so boring. And then Nadal came and challenged Roger Federer when no one else could. It made for interesting tennis. His never-give-up movements and attitude on court made for interesting tennis. And still today, Nadal is interesting tennis whether you like it or not. So yes, tennis without nadal is boring.

    June 14, 2014 at 10:56 am | Reply
    • B.S.Vidyaranya

      Well said mate! Every word of what u hv said is true. I hv replied to one other critic (certainly not constructive!) which is awaiting moderation. Pl try reading once its through.

      June 21, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  21. Tonysweet World

    Reblogged this on Tonysweet World.

    June 16, 2014 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  22. Clavers

    Rafa played great and is great, but he was just beaten by a better player on the day.

    That cross-court backhand that Kyrgios took high and hit past Rafa when he was camped in the backhand corner was one for the ages.

    July 6, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply

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