It was really a tale of two matches tonight, as Rafael Nadal rolled to a two-set lead in his third round match against Fabio Fognini… and then promptly fell apart, losing for the first time in his 152nd instance in that situation. As the 29-year-old watched his lead evaporate and then crumble into defeat at the hands of an Italian that had already knocked him off twice during the 2015 ATP season, everyone else observing the match around the world had to feel that nagging question begin to creep into the mind.
Will Rafael Nadal ever break his tie with Pete Sampras in the all-time records for career Grand Slams? Will the Spaniard ever win another Slam?
Now mired in the longest drought of his long and immensely successful career, the Spaniard is stalled at 14 Grand Slam victories in his career and has steadily fallen further down the rankings with a slew of early exits at tournaments he once owned outright. He has not reached the semifinals in the last five Slams in which he has participated, and his frequent absences from nagging injuries that are the risk that counterbalances the ample rewards of his style of play only make it that much harder for him to add to his career victory total.
Nadal certainly still has the skill to play beautiful tennis. During the first two sets he won 6-3 6-4, Nadal was hitting high-percentage first serves at an average 110 miles per hour, moving Fognini around the court, and generally dictating play as we have come to expect over the years. Then the Italian threw caution to the wind, started playing with abandon, and threw everything at the southpaw from Mallorca. It seemed to rattle Nadal, as one break point after another slipped through his fingers.
By the end, when the two men traded breaks back and forth and it seemed like nobody really wanted to hold serve, Fognini finally put a merciful end to the proceedings with a serve that Nadal could only shank. A grimacing Nadal was visibly drained in the press conference that followed the match, softly conceding that his opponent was simply better on the day with a glazed stare that spoke of shock and exhaustion.
Can Nadal win another Grand Slam? The Spaniard, while ranked outside the top five and becoming further and further removed from his greatest glories, still has the physical tools to defeat any player in the world on a given day. Stringing together a run of seven victories is still a viable possibility, especially on the crushed brick of Roland Garros in Paris. He already holds the distinction of being the best clay-court champion of all time, and his next French Open title will be the 10th of his career. The motivation will be there to prove that last year’s exit was an aberration when he returns to France next spring.
But will he win there, or perhaps even earlier in Melbourne where he has won just once in his career? Can he return to his dominant form on the lawn to win another Wimbledon? Physically he is there, but is Nadal still mentally in the game? His play tonight and the subsequent presser bring that into question. He has started allowing matches to slip away, and that one in the 151-1 record he now holds after winning the first two sets in five-set matches will hover over every subsequent performance.
It is one thing to be outmatched by Tomas Berdych and Novak Djokovic when the vagaries of the draw force you to meet in the quarterfinals. It is even understandable to fall once in a while in a two-tiebreak, four-set thriller or a five-set classic against guys like Fognini or Robin Soderling. It is entirely another story to begin falling regularly to guys outside the top 100 like Lukas Rosol or Steve Darcis or a wild card like Nick Kyrgios.
Nadal hasn’t won a tournament on hard courts since taking the Qatar Open in January 2014, making it least likely that he will win a Grand Slam again on the surface. The surface wears down his body too much when matches go long, and he fades down the stretch in a way that precludes winning seven straight. That leaves only two possible tournaments where he will have a chance at reclaiming his throne — Wimbledon and the French Open.
We will focus first on the grass for a moment. Nadal won two thrillers at the All-England Club in 2008 and 2010, over Federer and Berdych respectively, but since then he has floundered at the tournament. In that London burb lies the disappointment of Darcis and Rosol and Kyrgios, the missed opportunities, the upsets and the headlines that inevitably follow. (Just like the one on this article.) His win at Stuttgart in the lead-up to this year’s Wimbledon was his first title on lawn courts since defeating Berdych in 2010. At this point a long run in England would be against the grain of expectation.
That leaves the French Open. Nadal continues to win on the clay, though even that one-time inevitability is now just a solid wager. At events outside the French Open, he hasn’t won at Madrid since 2014, Rome since 2013, Monte Carlo since 2012. The wins are increasingly being racked up at Masters 500 and 250 level events, tournaments like the Argentina Open in Buenos Aires and the German Open in Hamburg. Against high-quality fields, Nadal has failed to consistently prove that he remains among the best in the world.
So will Nadal win another Grand Slam? Yeah, Rafa will likely get one more French Open title before he rides off into the sunset with 15 career Slams on his record. The argument that he might one day challenge Federer for the all-time record should be finally set to rest permanently, but one more is on the table for him to snatch before he retires.
In the end, we will be able to look back at a career that gave us a solid decade of meteoric excellence before the fuel burned out of the rocket and fell back through the stratosphere, that seemed at once to be transcendent and to have held back the promise of so much more. But Nadal will have no reason for regrets, as he coaxed everything he could out of his uncooperative body to delight us for a dozen years and more.