King of Clay Rafael Nadal heads to French Open without a crown

For the first time since winning the French Open in 2005, Rafael Nadal will arrive in Paris without having claimed a trophy at a European clay court. Stan Wawrinka beat him in straight sets in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open to join Novak Djokovic, Fabio Fognini and Andy Murray in the list of conquerors.

Rafael Nadal will seek a 10th title at the French Open in Paris
Rafael Nadal will seek a 10th title at the French Open in Paris Reuters

Back in the early 1960s the American musician Bob Dylan penned a song The Times They Are A Changin'.

The players on the men's tennis circuit are just over one week away from the French Open - the culmination of the clay court season - and they may well be singing Dylan's words:

"Come gather 'round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You'll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you

Is worth savin'

Then you better start swimmin'

Or you'll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin' "

Indeed things aren't what they used to be. Up until quite recently, this April/May swing of the ATP tour was all about one man: Rafael Nadal.

Slideshow: Roland Garros 2014 opens

He'd essentially win every clay court tournament he entered. Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome. And even if he wasn't winning everything, the impression he gave was that he was unbeatable on the surface.

Come the second grand slam event of the season at the French Open in Paris, he'd be in good form. He'd grow in strength and purpose during the fortnight and ultimately on the first Sunday in June in the final on the centre court from just after 3pm, he'd start hacking up some poor sap to claim the title.

Since Nadal picked up his first French Open crown in 2005, only one other person has won it. That was Roger Federer in 2009 when the Swiss beat Nadal's conqueror Robin Soderling.

Business as usual for Nadal was resumed in 2010.

But the 28-year-old Spaniard will commence his quest for a 10th Roland Garros crown in just over a week looking vulnerable.

For the first time in his career, he will enter the French - as the players also call it - without having won a clay court tournament.

Between 2005 and 2010, he won three clay court titles before arriving to Paris.

In 2011 there were only two crowns. But 2012 and 2013 each brought three tournaments before he claimed the French Open.

Last year Nadal only won the Madrid Masters before overcoming Novak Djokovic in the French Open final.

This year?


His last chance to muster any kind of encouragement was ground into the red dust at the Foro Italico on Friday night by the Swiss Stan Wawrinka.

He got past Nadal 7-6 6-2 to reach the semi-final.

By normal criteria a defeat in the last eight in Rome would be considered a good run. But this is Rafael Nadal; ordinary standards do not apply to the youngest man to claim titles at all the grand slam venues at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the US Open.

Djokovic beat him in the semis at Monte Carlo in April.

He went down to the Italian Fabio Fognini in the last 16 at the Barcelona Open. Last Sunday he was pulverized 6-3 6-2 by Andy Murray in the final of the Madrid Masters.

That defeat led to him dropping outside the top five for the first time in a decade.

Click here for our coverage of Roland Garros 2014

Wawrinka's straight sets demolition is simply salt in the wound. And now Nadal won't be among the top four seeds when the draw is made for the French Open next week.

There are mitigating factors. The Spaniard hasn't recovered as swiftly as expected from a wrist injury and an operation to remove his appendix at the end of last season.

But, despite the welter of statistics, Nadal refused to yield to pessimism.

"I fought until the end but it wasn't my day," Nadal said after the Rome loss to Wawrinka.

"I didn't have much luck and Stan played really aggressively, especially on some of the key points. I'm not disappointed by my match and obviously playing at night doesn't help my style of play especially against someone like Stan who hits the ball very hard.

"My top spin doesn't have the same effect when it's colder. The balls were slower and I couldn't move him around the court.

"Of course it's tough to lose in the quarter-finals but I've been playing well for the past two weeks - the only exception being the loss to Andy in Madrid last week."

Nadal will head to Paris a little earlier than anticipated to begin his preparations for the defence of his Roland Garros crown.

It seems unthinkable that he won't be there on the final day. "Difficult to know what to say about Roland Garros. I'm going there to be competitive and I really do have the feeling that I'm playing well. If I don't get too nervous, I'll have a good chance.

"For years I've been saying that when I go onto the courts in Paris, I have the feeling that I could lose. This year it seems that's even more true. But I also feel I'm capable of accepting the challenge to stop that from happening."

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app