Rafa Nadal’s defeat at the hands of Steve Darcis on Court One was a shock for many people, myself included.
I had him down as tournament favourite and I believed it, because he was in the best form. Since his return, he has lost two matches – both in finals. He’s won Wimbledon twice and been in five finals (that’s a better record than he has in the Australian and the US Opens), and I’d say grass is his best surface after clay.
But he lost in the first round, and it’s time to analyse it, just as we did when Lukas Rosol stunned him at Wimbledon last year.
This latest loss worries me, because his knee appeared to be a problem. Did it bother him during the clay-court season? Probably it did – I noticed in Monte Carlo he did not slide across the court to his right in quite the same way as years gone by – and in fact, in the first week of Roland-Garros he was a shadow of himself. He seemed quite upset about the lack of time he had to recover before playing Fabio Fognini at the French Open – perhaps it betrayed his physical concerns.
The second week he may have have needed painkillers or anti-inflammatories to play the big matches – but he cannot do that regularly.
Clay obviously suits him, because physically the higher bounce means he can stand taller and that eases the pressure on his knee, and mentally he has such a huge margin over his rivals on the surface that his margin for coping with a drop in performance is that much greater.
Evidently, grass, which requires him to bend low and subjects the knees to maximum pressure, deos not suit him. It looked too painful, and he lacks the same natural movements that he makes on the clay to compensate.
I’ve written before about my surprise at Nadal’s schedule since his comeback. He started off on clay, then played on hard courts at Indian Wells (winning, admittedly) before returning to the European clay season. Nine tournaments in three months for a player in recovery always looked too much. It’s true that we’re talking about a player who is a compulsive competitor, but still, he might have managed his workload better.
Maybe Wimbledon is the price Rafa paid for exerting himself so much earlier in the year.
And without being too pessimistic, we do need to ask questions about his future.
Will he have to chop down his schedule? To me that seems obvious, even if he doesn’t say so.
Is the problem chronic and permanent? I’d have to say that’s the most logical assumption.
All of this makes him vulnerable in Grand Slams, if he’s not getting court time before they start. Wimbledon, coming after a heavy clay schedule and the French Open, will probably cause him the most problems.