I remember watching Nadal when he first burst onto the scene with bulging biceps, a shaman war cry and a ferocious forehand that bit into the sand harder than a crocodile clamps in on its prey. His combination of raw power, unfettered will, ridiculous spin and unmatched movement, fetched him a landslide of clay court titles from 2005 till 2014.
It was well known that the bull – despite becoming a champion of repute on those surfaces – could still be taken out on grass and hard courts. All it took was a hard-hitting opponent playing lights out tennis, or a Nadal off day and any one of those power houses was in with a chance. On clay, the story had always been an entirely different matter. Particularly at Roland Garros – other than a Soderling blip in 2009 – no one, not even the widely accepted G.O.A.T, Roger Federer, could dislodge the Spaniard’s dominion over the dirt. This remained true, until 2015.
For a few years leading up to 2015, Nadal had been struggling on the other popular surfaces, particularly grass. Yet it was a generally accepted fact that when the tour moved to the shifting sands, Rafa’s game would awaken once more. Yet 2015 seemed eerily different. Coming into the clay court season, he had been proven vulnerable in all tournaments played, including those in the South American clay swing. He would go on to the French Open without any European silverware for the first time since 2004. Still, most pundits reserved judgment. This was after all, the French Open and that lone Soderling blip had come on the heels of stormy waters within the Nadal household. Even with the draw released and a red hot Novak looming, only the bravest would predict a Serbian victory. Yet it happened and it was a dismissive straight sets victory by Djokovic. Nadal? He barely put up any resistance. In the months that have followed, we have all wondered what happened to the Shaman warrior. His battle cry was there, but it lacked conviction. He wailed away his buggy whip of a forehand but it nibbled rather than bit the dirt. He would accelerate into a scurry, only to get to his opponents shots a second too late and his famed mental fortitude had all but deserted him.
Coming into this season, we all knew how important it was for Rafa to begin the march to rediscovering the form that has made him one of the most feared tennis players to ever grace a court. It hasn’t been easy – in fact by the end of the Australian Open it looked like it was more of the same. We should have known better. Rafa slowly but surely played himself back into contention during the American hard court swing and by the time Monte Carlo rolled around, the desert king was ready to reclaim his rightful throne. What a reclamation it has been. With Barcelona done and dusted, make that two out of two for Rafa in the Euro clay swing. All of a sudden, whispers of “he’s back” have permeated the tennis air. This does not bode well for Nadal’s closest rivals, particularly Novak. If Rafa is really and truly back to his clay court imperiousness, then the Serbian might be really ruing a missed opportunity to complete his grand slam portfolio, last year.
Since Nadal’s slump last year, a few possible heirs have made their statements – none more than Dominic Thiem. He might have to wait a little bit longer to take the throne. For now, the desert king is here to stay.