It wasn't particularly surprising that Rafael Nadal struggled at the beginning of the season. He was coming of an injury break at the end of 2014, and hadn't played many matches in a long time. The consensus was that Nadal would slowly gain momentum on the hard courts early in the year, before finding his peak form once the clay season rolled around. However, heading into Roland Garros, if anything Nadal seems to have taken a step back.
His results may not be bad by most player's standards, as reaching the semis of Monte Carlo, finals of Madrid and quarterfinals of Rome is nothing to sneeze at. However, Nadal was badly outclassed in his losses to Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka, and also lost to Fabio Fognini in
Barcelona. More concerning than the mere fact that he
lost on clay is the way he looked in doing so.
Nadal simply appeared overmatched, left shots far too short and missed
easy balls that he never missed in years past.
While one of Nadal's biggest strengths has traditionally been his ability to come back strong from injuries or layoffs, he clearly isn't having the same level of success this time around. He's nearly 29, and it's fair to wonder if we'll ever see Nadal be truly dominant again. If the clay season didn't fix his issues, it's hard to see what else will. His confidence seems to be falling with each loss, and it seems to be affecting his strokes.
Nadal is so talented that even when he's playing like a shell of his former self he's still good enough to beat almost everyone else on tour. However, when he fails to get more than 3 games in a set against Djokovic or Murray on clay, it's clear he's got a ways to go to get back to their level. Further, once the tour sees Nadal's invincibility fade further and further away, more people will start taking the court thinking they can beat him.
Everyone knew from the beginning that Nadal wasn't a player who was going to age particularly well, given his physical and extreme style of play. It's impressive he's lasted as long as he has (given that he was a full time ATP pro by 17), and the credit goes to Nadal for tweaking and expanding his skill set. However, if his slump continues (to the point where it's no longer just a slump), it will be interesting to see how Nadal responds. Will he continue to stay on the tour from age 29-32 as a top 5-10 player who occasionally wins a big tournament but consistently loses to Djokovic,
Or will he hang it up within a year if he gets tired of losing to
players he used to consistently beat?
Federer decided he'd rather remain on tour as a top 5 player even if it means taking losses he never would have in his prime. However, Federer's love of the game (and the tour lifestyle) is unparalleled, and everyone handles a drop in status differently. It's certainly possible that Nadal reaches an opposite conclusion, and determines it's not worth remaining on tour if he's not going to be the dominant player he once was.
Nadal may go on to win the 2015 French Open and put all the questions to rest (for the time being at least), but anything less a than a title there will only increase the questions. If he isn't the champion at Roland Garros, his confidence will fall even further and he may start to wonder what he can rely on. It would also mean he hasn't won a big tournament in over a year.
Nadal was so dominant for so many years that it's hard to accept those days may be over. However, after a long enough period it's hard to overlook the results (and our eyes). There's no reason he should feel he has to retire when he hits 30 just because his results have slipped (regardless of what tennis fans begin to say), but the thought may creep into Nadal's mind sooner than many people expected. Thirteen years on tour while consistently going deep in tournaments is about all anyone can ask for, and Nadal may have finally hit a wall that he simply doesn't know how to get through.