Rafael Nadal faces new challenge to maintain clay court dominance
Nadal heads to Barcelona as defending champion bidding to produce his best tennis after suffering only his fifth ever defeat in Monte Carlo
By Mathieu Wood
Last Updated: 24/04/19 3:24pm
Is Rafael Nadal’s dominance on clay under threat after an uncharacteristic campaign at the Monte-Carlo Masters?
The 11-time champion in the Principality was stunned by eventual champion Fabio Fognini in straight sets in the semi-finals of the Masters 1000 tournament.
Nadal was honest in assessment of his performance against the experienced Italian after the match.
"I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years," Nadal said.
"When that happens, you have to lose. And I deserved to lose because I played against a player that was better than me."
Did you know?
Rafael Nadal's defeat against Fabio Fognini ended an 18-match winning streak at the Monte-Carlo Masters, dating back to 2015.
But where does that leave Nadal and what optimism might that leave the rest of the men's game that the Spaniard is fallible on a surface that he has for so long made his own?
Disillusion in defeat
Nadal was bidding to reach his 13th final in Monte Carlo and match Roger Federer's record for most final appearances at Masters 1000 level (50).
The 32-year-old began in imperious fashion at the Monte-Carlo Country Club as he dismissed countryman Roberto Bautista Agut 6-1 6-1.
Another assured, if less emphatic performance, saw the world No 2 beat Grigor Dimitrov for the loss of just five games to reach the quarter-finals.
Despite being broken three times in the first set, Nadal withstood serious pressure from Guido Pella to reach the semi-finals with a third straight-sets win, as his title hopes increased with the exit of world No 1 Novak Djokovic to Daniil Medvedev.
Then came his lacklustre performance in defeat against Fognini, who outclassed the 17-time Grand Slam champion with arguably one of the finest performances of the Italian's career.
"I was lucky to win the two games and to avoid the even worse score. I was not thinking much. Just thinking about how bad I played today."
Fognini continues first-time Masters 1000 trend
Fabio Fognini became the eighth player to win his first Masters 1000 title over the past 17 events. The Italian followed Alexander Zverev ( 2017 Rome), Grigor Dimitrov (2017 Cincinnati), Jack Sock (2017 Paris), Juan Martin del Potro (2018 Indian Wells), John Isner (2018 Miami), Karen Khachanov (2018 Paris), Dominic Thiem (2019 Indian Wells).
Injuries nagging at Nadal's confidence
Nadal arrived in Monte Carlo claiming to be unaware of his physical condition after a one-month absence from the game.
A knee injury - the latest in a long list - had forced him to withdraw from the Indian Wells semi-final against Roger Federer in March and he subsequently withdrew from the Miami Open.
Nadal didn't hide his ongoing frustration at the psychological impact his time on the treatment table has had on his performances. You wonder how long he can continue to put up with the toll.
I am coming from low moments in terms of injuries, and in terms of the mental side it has not been easy to accept all the things that have been going on...
"It was a tough day and [Fabio] was a difficult opponent," said Nadal.
"I am coming from low moments in terms of injuries, and in terms of the mental side it has not been easy to accept all the things that have been going on... It was this kind of day that everything was wrong."
The Barcelona Open, where Nadal is also an 11-time champion, provides the next opportunity for Nadal to get back to winning ways.
Time to end title drought
Nadal has not celebrated a title since his victory at the Rogers Cup in Toronto last August.
After this week's tournament in Barcelona, there will be a one-week break from competition before the Madrid Open is followed by the Italian Open ahead of the French Open.
Nadal has still only lost two matches in 88 encounters at Roland Garros. Remarkable.
Argentina's Leonardo Mayer will face Nadal in the second round in Barcelona and you would not be surprised if the top seed discovers his best form in Spain.
His task, though, is not easy after he was left in the same half as Lucas Pouille, 2018 finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas and 2017 runner-up Thiem.
Still the man to beat?
Fognini has sent a message of purpose that he is a different prospect on clay.
He arrived at Monte Carlo without a win over a player in the top 50 but from the moment he earned a comeback win against Andrey Rublev, demonstrated just why he has often been viewed as capable of beating anyone in the world at his best.
A maiden Masters 1000 title will only add to the 31-year-old's confidence.
Dominic Thiem proved his credentials on clay last season as he ended the campaign as the only player to beat Nadal on the Spaniard's favoured surface - in Madrid - and as the French Open finalist after defeat to the Spaniard at Roland Garros.
World No 3 Alexander Zverev has already won four titles in his career and is another who should challenge for honours but questions persist over his tactical maturity and mentality on the biggest stages.
And the forgotten man on clay…
The clay court campaign has another intriguing complexion this season with the return of Roger Federer.
The Swiss is scheduled to make his return to the surface at next month's Madrid Masters after skipping the clay schedule for the last two seasons.
Can the 2009 French Open and long-time world No 1 still have an impact with a first appearance at Roland Garros since 2015 in line?
We have the tennis season covered from all angles via our website skysports.com/tennis. On the move? Head to our app for mobile devices and iPad, or follow our Twitter account @SkySportsTennis to join in the conversation.