Rafael Nadal’s quest for a tenth French Open title ended in the 2015 quarterfinals, losing in straight sets to top-seeded Novak Djokovic. For Nadal, it was only his second loss in eleven years at Roland Garros. Nadal had struggled during the clay court season, a departure from his history of dominance on the surface. After winning nine titles and seventy matches at the French Open, Nadal is undoubtedly the most successful clay court player in history. Yet he missed the final this year, only the second such occurrence during his illustrious career. Nadal has not made a Grand Slam final since his last French Open title in 2014. If this signifies a newfound mortality on clay, Nadal’s quest for another Grand Slam is suddenly much cloudier.
In 2005, the nineteen year-old Spanish lefty won his first French Open, defeating Roger Federer on his way to the title. He repeated as champion the following year, and soon established himself as one of the world’s premiere clay court players. Additional championships in 2007 and 2008 continued his remarkable run. After his epic win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, he was recognized as a serious contender on all surfaces. Soon after, Nadal won the 2009 Australian Open, and he completed his Career Slam with a US Open title in 2010. He has been ranked number one in the world multiple times since 2008, and has transformed his game into one of the best of all-time. When he won his fourteenth Grand Slam title in 2014 at the age of 28, many tennis analysts predicted he would easily surpass Roger Federer’s record total of seventeen, based on his prowess on clay and Federer’s recent struggles at major tournaments.
However, injuries plagued the rest of his 2014 season and continued into 2015. Some early season losses on clay led to critics wondering if he would return to top form. Suddenly Nadal, while still an outstanding tennis player, has seemingly lost a step from the dazzlingly athlete who sent those whistling, top-spin ground-strokes down the sideline. Sports have a different way of interpreting age. Nadal is 29, young by any other standard, but may in fact be in the latter half of his prime. On the other side of the net, Novak Djokovic has firmly grasped the world’s top ranking, searching for his own career Grand Slam. Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka are the two players in recent memory other than the “Big 3” of Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic to win two Grand Slams; they are continuing to improve every season. If injuries continue to take their toll, Nadal’s time at the top may be over. He is still one of the best players in the world, but tennis is a sport with a very small margin for error. In the same way that a few inches can turn a winner into an unforced error, a year can make all the difference between contending for the title and coming up short. Nadal’s window of opportunity to dominate on the hard and grass courts may be behind him, but the French Open was always assumed to be his domain. Perhaps this year was just a hiccup, and we will see him back on the pinnacle at Roland Garros next year. But now the King of Clay is no longer a guarantee, nor is the quest for 17, or even another slam. We will still be rooting for him to win one or two more. Nadal’s established history of persistence and determination gives every reason to believe he will win again, but perhaps not every year. If this is the end of his reign at the French Open, what a remarkable run that it was: winning nine championships and losing only one match from 2005-2014. How long until we see a player dominate a domain of tennis the way Nadal did so at the French Open for the past decade? Or will his record-setting nine titles in ten years be enshrined with the other seemingly untouchable records from Joe DiMaggio or Cal Ripken Jr.? Either way, if this year’s French Open ends the Era of Nadal, it does so by closing one of the best chapters in the history of tennis. And as far as stories go, Robin Soderling (who singlehandedly stopped Nadal from going ten for ten) has a great one from Paris to tell about a certain match in 2009.
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