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The Vincible Version of Rafael Nadal

On the eve of the French Open, the Spaniard is playing better tennis than anyone else in the world. Is his clay-court dominance in 2017 a return to form or a brief plateau on a continued decline?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Rafael Nadal is back, which is a strange thing to write, because to “be back,” one must first have a fall from grace. For an entire decade, Nadal’s ownership of the clay season was so complete that even the ludicrous title counts and 81-match winning streak that stretched across three years fail to give an accurate picture of his smothering dominance. It’s strange that Rafael Nadal can be back, because for years it seemed that he would never fail.

The clay-court season is short, but meaningful, both in a philosophical and a mathematical sense. On paper, it is a critical time of the year for any player with designs on being the best in the world. For about two months, the major events of the tour run across Europe with three Masters events and a handful of lesser tournaments leading to the French Open. The clay swing is the North American summer hard-court stretch, but with better views and brighter colors. If you’re a player of consequence, you can’t avoid it even if you’d like to. There are too many points at stake.

No playing surface in sports is as bizarre as a clay tennis court. Hard courts, which are simple cement constructions marked with paint, are the current norm on tour. They operate with a structural consistency expected from a basketball court or a track. You can plant your feet, firmly accelerate or change direction and trust, for the most part, that the surface will respond predictably and favorably. A clay court, in comparison, is a medieval death trap. Since paint lines would be easily rubbed off the court surface during play, clay courts utilize strips of plastic or metal, which protrude slightly from the surface, to mark their dimensions. The entire playing field is covered in crushed brick, which is why players slide into their shots and have to anticipate slower changes of direction. The ball skids less on clay, instead jumping higher and creating more opportunities for retrieval. Players will skid and trip and still have opportunities to put a shot in play. This is an arena for prolonged chaos, where making a plan, and adjusting confidently once that plan is inevitably shattered, is the key to success. Points will rarely end quickly or accidentally. Clay-court tennis is a mandatory mess.

To step onto a clay court is to enter an arena where space is curved and the days are longer. This, historically, has caused the French Open to produce stranger, more sporadic champions than the fast-court slams (anybody remember Gastón Gaudio?). Clay-court tennis is almost an entirely different game, one in which many of the sport’s most renowned figures have experienced their poorest results. Except for Nadal, who plays with a clarity of intent that is nearly blinding. Few players telegraph their direction and pursue the construction of a point as ruthlessly as the Spaniard, which is part of the reason he is the most famous clay courter, and perhaps the most dominant single-surface specialist (on clay, he’s won 22 Masters shields and 10 crowns in Barcelona to go along with his nine Opens) in the history of tennis.

About a decade ago, Nadal was an immovable roadblock in Roger Federer’s world. Federer, to those who cheered for him, was the perfect tennis player. And if Nadal had been out of the picture, it seems likely that Federer would have enjoyed a literally perfect season in 2006. At the time, Nadal was in the middle of his aforementioned winning streak, while Federer was in the midst of what would be his best year on tour. Nadal, on clay, was a quirky, relentless typhoon. And in his bizarro world, he was unbeatable. Nadal drew power from the clay like Superman from the yellow sun, but perhaps even that comparison sells his suffocating control of the game short. If Federer in his prime was a classical embodiment of the game’s artistic ideals, Nadal was simply a wall. Solid, unceasing, always able to play another ball back. Not merely great or beautiful, but invincible.

At least, he seemed that way. Nadal’s round-of-16 loss at last year’s U.S. Open marked his sixth straight major without a quarterfinal appearance, which projected a story that made too much sense. We were being fed the cheese course in the narrative we’d bought into since the Spaniard’s glory years: Nadal’s intense, snaking, balls-to-the-wall play would eventually destroy his body. He was still in his 20s, but the miles on the pro circuit had been accruing since George W. Bush’s first term; once the decline began, it would be swift and unforgiving.

Nadal is only 30, but we think of him as one of the modern game’s elderly sages. He started competing for majors as a teenager, inadvertently linking himself to the older Federer in the mid-aughts and competing against players, the Lleyton Hewitts and the Andy Roddicks, whose careers expired years ago. Like Federer, it’s never been completely clear who Nadal’s contemporaries have been. Projecting his career path has been a fool’s errand, though that hasn’t stopped any observers from trying. (Whoops.)

Nadal has won the French Open as many times as any player has ever won any major event. (The only equal in the Open era is Martina Navratilova, who first retired at the age of 38 and won nine Wimbledons.) You’ve surely heard the story here. Since his first appearance at the tournament in 2005, he has lost only two matches: the 2009 round-of-16 shocker to Robin Soderling and a 2015 quarterfinal to an ascendant Novak Djokovic. But last year, struggling with a wrist injury, he withdrew before his third-round match. We may remember the champions that win the trophy and then ride off into the sunset, but more often, even the most spectacular careers end softly.

The two-month clay-court season will wrap up over the next two weeks in Paris. Nadal, just as in the good old days, will be the overwhelming favorite in the earthy orange-and-green swirl of Roland Garros.

The ATP’s hierarchy has been turned on its head this season, but not (yet) by young newcomers so much as its old guard. Nadal and Federer’s meeting in the final of January’s Australian Open was a nostalgia-laced classic, in part because it had been six years since the pair had faced off in a major final. But also because their success in Melbourne was viewed as a one-off, an accidental return to an upended power structure. However, the months after showed that the year’s first major wasn’t a fluke; Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were troubled and struggling for the first time in years, and Nadal was healthy enough to play his best tennis.

That tennis would reap fruitful, if frustrating, results. Now Federer was the roadblock in the path to Nadal’s near-perfect year. Nadal lost to Federer in each of the year’s first three significant tournaments, but the Swiss took the clay season off to rest and prepare for a run at Wimbledon.

As Federer has honed his skills and rested his body in anticipation of a return to his kingdom, Nadal has ferociously hunted down prey in his own domain. He took titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, and Madrid, suffering his first loss of the clay season to Dominic Thiem in Rome only last week. (As much as this year has demonstrated that tennis is stalling and replaying its biggest hits, last week was a positive sign for fans looking for new blood. Thiem, a 23-year-old Austrian who hits every ball with such vigor that he seems to be trying to get one to pop, made a run to the semifinals, while Alexander Zverev, the towering 20-year-old German wunderkind, went on to beat Djokovic to win his first Masters title.)

Nadal is now the fourth-ranked player in the world, but he has accumulated more than three times as many ranking points as Murray or Djokovic this year. As far as this year’s race for the no. 1 ranking goes, he and Federer sit head and shoulders above the field.

Time looks to have run us in a circle. Yesterday’s best players look like today’s best, too. But Federer has voluntarily elected not to play a major. Serena Williams is pregnant. Nadal’s shorts don’t stretch toward his ankles anymore. The tennis world is the same, but older.

Clay courts play with time and make you trip over yourself. Improbably, Nadal is a front-runner again, but no longer does his victory feel inevitable, and that makes his presence at the Open as compelling as ever. The red dirt of Paris won’t save Nadal from his decline — but it could remind us that it hasn’t quite started yet.