Usually this time of the year Rafael Nadal is talking about how his game is peaking ahead of the French Open.
The discussion is typically about how many title-winning streaks he has extended and which records he has broken as the clay season moves toward its climax at Roland Garros.
Not this time, though.
Things are different for Nadal in 2019, and he is in an unfamiliar position after a series of disappointing results on his favorite surface.
Instead of celebrating titles and records, Nadal is having to explain why he has struggled to win matches.
“Tennis is about winning or losing. I’ve won a lot over the years on this surface, but this year it hasn’t been the case. I’ve been really close, but I haven’t been able to win,” Nadal said Saturday after losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas at the Madrid Open for his third straight semifinal elimination on clay this season.
He had already failed to reach the final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, tournaments he had won the last three consecutive seasons. It was an uncharacteristic streak of poor results for the Spaniard, who hadn’t arrived in Madrid without a title since 2004.
Still, Nadal wasn’t dwelling on it too much.
“You just have to accept it and I have to accept it naturally. But to accept things does not mean to try to change things,” he said. “During all my life, I think I have taken the victories very naturally and with a lot of normality. With the losses I’ll do the same. It will be normal and I’m going to accept it naturally.”
Nadal lost to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo and Dominic Thiem in Barcelona, and the defeat to the up-and-coming Tsitsipas in Madrid came after a quarterfinal win over Stan Wawrinka that Nadal called his best match on clay this season. He couldn’t keep up with the aggressive game of the ninth-ranked Greek on Saturday, though, losing the decisive points to again fail to advance past the last four.
Nadal said not making it to tournament finals as often as he did in the past shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise.
“It’s more normal what is happening right now than what happened in the last 14 years,” he said. “I think I have tennis ahead of me. I have time ahead of me. I’ll be able to try to win these tournaments that I was not able to win this year. And what I have to do is to stay fit and to keep playing at a high level.”
Nadal has won a clay-court title in each of the last 15 seasons and remains the tour’s most successful player on the surface. He next plays in Rome, where he is the defending champion, then will try to win a record-extending 12th French Open title in June.
Nadal said it was impossible to know what the current setbacks could mean for his future.
“We’ll see,” he said. “Hopefully, I will accept this defeat properly and we will see what happens week after week, day after day. I’ll try to work in a proper way, in a proper manner, with a proper attitude and then just believe in my possibilities and believe that things will work out and they will click.
“I’ll keep trying until I can to keep playing at a high level,” Nadal said. “And If I can keep doing that, I will continue to have chances. If not, then that’s it. There’s no need to make any drama or overthink when things are going bad. It is a sport and in a sport it’s a matter of winning and sometimes losing and accepting both as naturally as possible.”
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