Can Rafael Nadal get better on clay?

For a long time now, this question has been pondered: loud and probing by tennis experts, in hushed whispers among his peers, in awe by former players and fans, in disbelief by others.

The answer, in a way, can only come if the question is changed. For a very brief moment in the French Open final on Sunday, Nadal was wrong-footed. Dominic Thiem broke his serve to take the second set 7-5.

Not that it hasn’t happened before – the Spaniard has lost six sets in 11 finals at Roland Garros previously, though he has never been stretched to five – but it seemed to touch a nerve.

The Nadal that returned from a bathroom break in the third set was a different being, what followed was a knockdown: a brutal, ruthless crushing of Thiem’s serve and spirit. He unleashed the beast as he banished all groundstrokes back, chased down every drop, won every battle at the net and lost only seven points. The 25-year-old would go on to win just two more games in the match before losing his second straight final on the red dirt of Paris.

The Matador, living up to the moniker, fought with a vehemence that is not always seen or needed at this stage. That drive, that belligerence, that punishing, arm socket-popping hitting, that steely-eyed resolve when he was pushed – that is what makes the 33-year-old so strong on clay.

And that is the answer: Nadal will get better on clay every time he is challenged. Even if he is not playing his best, he will find a level to elevate himself. Because Nadal the competitor is stronger than Nadal the player. And that is what makes him as a player more dangerous in 2019 than he was more than a decade ago, when he lifted his first at a 19-year-old.

A poor year

In all honestly, Nadal had not been good on clay this year. Scratch that, Nadal has not been at his best for a year now.

After his 11th title at Roland Garros in 2018, he lost an intense five-set battle to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon, had to retire from his US Open semi-final and didn’t play a competitive match till four months later at the Australian Open. Of course, he still managed to win a Masters 1000 on hard-court in Canada.

But it got worse after that.

He managed to win just eight games in the Australian Open final to Djokovic, lost to Nick Kyrgios at Acapulco and had to withdraw from the Indian Wells semi-finals with a knee injury. The return to European clay was poor by his standards. He lost three straight semi-finals at Monte Carlo Masters, Barcelona Open and Madrid Masters, going down to Fabio Fognini and Stefanos Tsitispas, apart from Thiem.

He himself admitted that he was mentally and physically down, and coach Carlos Moya was so worried about his loss of passion that he wanted Nadal to pull out of Madrid.

But just like in that third set of the final, just like he has numerous times in his career, Nadal fought back with a vengeance.

He won Rome Masters to get his first title of the season, handing out a bagel and breadstick to Djokovic in the three-set final. He won an unprecedented 12th title at Roland Garros dropping just two sets – to David Goffin and Thiem. He won his 18th Grand Slam title, bringing his tally just two behind Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20 – the closest he has been since 2004.

How he managed to do it, even he doesn’t know as he answered John McEnroe with a sheepish grin. An hour before, he was glaring at everything with brow furrowed in concentration and anger. But as soon as Thiem sent another forehand long, he went from framing a shot to sliding down on his back to celebrate. There were tears, an emphatic hug for his opponent, and smile for his team. The doubts had vanished.

A special win

This win was made extra special by the fact that it seemed unlikely to him.

In an injury-marred career, Nadal recovering and regrouping to return and win is not a surprise anymore. But it was new this time as he returned from mental fatigue; from morale-sapping losses to unheralded opponents; with a re-modelled serve to reduce strain on his fragile body, and with the threat of Novak Djokovic on the verge of holding all four Majors again.

For the majority of the tennis following populace, his 12th crown was not even a question leading into the tournament. But not Nadal and his team.

“I was too negative. After Madrid and Barcelona, I was thinking about what I needed to do. I could stop for a while and recover or change my attitude and recover,” said Nadal, adding had locked himself away in Barcelona questioning where his season was heading.

“If Roland Garros came before Barcelona, it’s unlikely he would have won it a month ago,” said Moya. But he took the chance to keep competing and it all lined up together, much like the bottles he painstakingly arranges on court.

In the final, his reworked serve was sharp and didn’t let up even when errors created chances saving four of the six break points. He was omniscient at the net, winning 23 of 27 net points, mixing it up when his behind-the-baseline brutality was not enough. The 33-year-old served and volleyed and gobbled up Thiem’s solid drop shots with the same hunger with which he consumed his thundering groundstrokes. His tennis was unreal, his passion unmatched.

When Nadal was unsure, when Moya doubted his protégé, when Thiem saw a chance, when the tennis world saw a possible change of guard, the fighter in Nadal reared its head and reminded yet again how he battles with more than just a racquet. He fought on his weakened knees with a spirit stronger than those rocket, topspin forehands. And he bettered an already unprecedented tournament record to 93-2.

No matter how many times he will be there, this Roland Garros win will remind Nadal that even when in doubt and pushed to the limit, he is only getting better.