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Rafael Nadal and the Element of Doubt

For the last decade, Rafael Nadal has owned the French Open. This year, though, he will face an opponent he's never taken on at Roland Garros: uncertainty.

by Mike Piellucci
May 18 2015, 1:29pm

Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Rafael Nadal begins by tugging on his shirt over his left shoulder. Then he does the same thing on his right. Next, it's up to the nose for a quick tap before swooping his hand over his left ear as though pulling back an errant lock of hair. Then back to the nose for a more vigorous rub, before concluding with a second imaginary hair-lock swoop on the right ear. Nadal repeats this ritual prior to every serve, in every match, which means that you're liable to see this go down a hundred times over the course of an afternoon. A typical major tournament, with its five-set matches, runs that number well into the thousands.

That one of the greatest tennis players to ever walk the Earth requires a six-step passcode to unlock his serve is an oddness that defies qualification. What that oddness says about Nadal ultimately depends on the vantage point. Traditionally, it's been psychoanalyzed only in relation to his greatness, with the hacky diagnosis being the old requirement that genius be tethered to madness; it would be weird if Nadal weren't weird, in other words. This is what happens when that same tick-addled goof doubles as the preeminent clay court player in the surface's history, whose 14 Grand Slam titles run second only to the 17 won by Roger Federer—a player whom he happens to own head-to-head. Nadal's talent is so unassailable and great that everything else about his personality consequently gets soaked by it, if not outright dragged in. Ticks morph into familiarities and familiarities into trademarks. Eventually, the mannerisms come to seem inherent to the on-court product.

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Last Sunday, Nadal lost the Madrid Open final in straight sets to Andy Murray, setting off a chain reaction that dropped him outside the top five in the world rankings for the first time in a decade. It was his worst clay-court loss in 11 years. He followed that up by getting blown away on Friday by Stan Wawrinka, marking his fifth loss on clay this season; that's already more than he's taken in any year since 2003. A great many things have been said about all of this, the majority of which are rooted in the same arid soil. With the French Open beckoning, Nadal looks broken.

This had been looming for a while, a rising debt incurred by Nadal's breakneck style, finally coming due after a long time on layaway. He's hurt his knees and then his wrist, intermittently missing time to nurse them but seemingly never quite enough to heal them. He's conceded that his confidence is shot, which is equal parts disarming and dismaying for an athlete canonized for his mental toughness. The loss to Murray is an easy flashpoint, but the charges have been set for months.

This photo could have been taken basically any time in the last ten years. — Photo by Susan Mullane-USA TODAY Sports

At his apex, Nadal's single most impressive quality was the way he elevated common sweat to high art, how he successfully cloaked a foundation of such obvious, exhaustive effort with a façade of effortlessness. That facility has been mostly absent for over a year, now, which leaves us to reconcile the naked, visible strain that remains. Nothing about his routine has changed apart from the context, which of course means that everything has. There's no romanticizing those eccentricities now that the tide's gone out; the tugging and pulling doesn't represent anything outside of itself. All it amounts to is fussing and fidgeting, the same types of modifications that everyone makes when they aren't comfortable.

As Murray battered Nadal across the court and repeatedly broke his serve, it became abundantly obvious that Nadal was not comfortable. He was a man desperately trying to reset his equilibrium and mostly failing at it, incapable of jamming the pieces together through unbridled will as he so often had in the past. He sliced enough winners to approximate competitiveness, then followed them with flubbed volleys and shanked backhands. No one watching could claim to know where the ball was liable to land. Nadal might not have, either.

This, at the time of year when Nadal has traditionally exuded more certainty than any other athlete. He has won nine of the last 10 French Opens, and the only player who managed to beat him is currently inactive. He is Mad Max and Roland Garros is his Thunderdome. No one is anywhere close to suggesting that he can't win it again, or even that he's not a favorite, still. But in an era when inevitability reigns in men's tennis—Nadal, Federer, Murray and Novak Djokovic have accounted for 37 of the last 41 major titles—Nadal taking the French stood alone as the most inevitable thing of all. For the first time in a decade there is reason to doubt him, and so already something has been lost; even a tenth title won't make up for that.

That the rest of the field can even conceive of Nadal being both vincible and evitable on his favorite surface is a testament to what genuine dominance looks like at a time when imposed parity has rendered it scarce throughout sports. The man who engineered it will take the court in Paris this week the way he always does, with all his quirks in full effect. We will watch him paw at his shoulders and his nose and each one of his ears, countless times over on an endless loop, because none of what Rafael Nadal does will change. The only thing that might is what we see as he does it.