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Nadal needs to fix nerves to dominate on clay again

Rafael Nadal collects a towel from a Ball boy
by Alex Sharp
Monday 30 March 2015

Rafael Nadal is a 14-time Grand Slam champion but the Spaniard continues to be troubled by nerves on court as he struggles for form. A return to his beloved clay could be the answer. 

Rafael Nadal, the ‘King of Clay’, will be relishing his return to the red dirt.

The 14-time Grand Slam champion has started his 2015 season slowly, admitting he is struggling with nerves and self-confidence issues on court.

This couldn’t have been more apparent than on Sunday as the world No.3 was handed a third round defeat in Miami by fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdaso 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, seeded at just No.29.

The match saw the usual dogged determination from Nadal but also a return to the mid-court, more passive tennis that hindered his early career on hard courts.

The result was a shock but they are becoming more of a common occurrence for the 28-year-old.

Nadal won an unprecedented ninth Roland Garros in June last summer but has only picked up one more title since by defeating Juan Monaco in Buenos Aires on the clay last month, which ended a nine-month trophy drought.

Having prevailed in Paris, Nadal lost in the fourth round of Wimbledon to the mercurial Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios before a wrist injury and appendicitis curtailed his 2014 season.

His comeback this year has been rather muted but the Spaniard has never stormed to numerous titles before the clay season, for example last season he just won in Doha and on clay in Rio.

However he has already relinquished those titles this season, with a first round exit in Doha to Michael Berrer and then fell to Fabio Fognini in the Rio semi-finals. It was his first semi-final loss on clay in 12 years but the calibre, or lack thereof, of his opponents suggests that his slower start is more cause for concern than normal.

In the first Grand Slam of the year in Melbourne, Nadal saw a 17 match-winning streak over Czech Tomas Berdych come to an end in the Australian Open quarter-finals.

Last week he surrendered three match points in bizarre fashion to lose to Milos Raonic in the Indian Wells quarter-finals. The Berdych and Raonic defeats are troubling for Nadal, as they are his only top-10 opponents thus far this year and both have ended in uncharacteristic losses.

Nadal was adamant after his defeat by Verdaso, that his on-court troubles are not due to his past physical problems.

“It is not a question of tennis. The thing is the question of being relaxed enough to play well on court,” he said in Miami.

“A month and a half ago I didn’t have the game. My game has improved but I am still playing with too much nerves for a lot of moments, important moments, still a little anxious on those moments.”

“The physical problems are in the past. I am in competition. I’m playing weeks in a row. Is not an excuse,” added Nadal. “I’m feeling that I don’t have this self-confidence that when I hit the ball I am going to hit the ball where I want to hit the ball, to go for the ball knowing that my position will be the right one.”

The world No.3 is thus in desperate need of a pickup with his ‘big four’ rivals (Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray) all performing well.

Therefore Nadal will be relieved to find his feet on clay, which presents the opportunity for him to reignite his faltering season.

Nadal will welcome the news his next tournament, beginning on 12th April, will be at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he is a record eight-time champion.

However Nadal was rather hesitant to talk up his chances after defeat in Miami, insisting he must work on the mental facets of his game to succeed: “The tournaments that are coming are historically good for my game, good tournaments for my confidence,” added Nadal. “But if I’m not able to control all these things, I am not going to have the possibility to compete well and have success in those events.”

Nadal’s legions of fans will be delighted that the 2008 Aegon Championships winner will return to the Wimbledon warm-up tournament in June for the first time since 2011.

Whether Nadal arrives in London as reigning  Roland Garros champion again could be vital in his ambitions for the rest of the season. Lose his status as the ‘King of Clay’ and Nadal’s crisis of confidence could get significantly worse, but win in Paris and his rivals will certainly take notice.

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