For the first time in a decade, Rafael Nadal won’t be the gamblers’ favorite going into the French Open.
Nadal’s 6-4, 7-6 (8-6) defeat to Italy’s Fabio Fognini in Barcelona yesterday was his second on clay to the 30th-ranked Italian this season. The third-round loss was his earliest in a dozen years at the Barcelona Open, where he’s won the title eight times.
“It was a disaster,” the fourth-ranked Nadal told reporters after the match. “Fabio played better than me and he deserved to win. I didn’t deserve to win. Until I sort out the ups and downs I’m suffering from this season, I will continue to be vulnerable.”
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic of Serbia is odds-on to win his first French Open title and complete the career Grand Slam, according to U.K. betting company William Hill Plc. That means a successful $1 beat returns $1 plus the original stake. Nadal is second favorite at 7-4. Japan’s Kei Nishikori and Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka are at 16-1.
“He’s currently not flavor of the month amongst our punters,” William Hill spokesman Joe Crilly said in an interview. Crilly pointed at recent injuries, Nadal’s lack of success this season and the consistent results of other players such as Djokovic.
“People are avoiding him, rather than in the last 10 years or so backing him as much as they possibly can,” Crilly said. “People aren’t putting the same amounts of money on him as before.”
Nadal, who struggled with a wrist injury and illness in the second part of 2014, only has a month left to find his clay game before he heads to Paris to defend his French Open title. The left-handed Spaniard has dominated the tournament since he first won it in 2005, winning an unprecedented nine titles and losing only once, in 2009.
This season, his form has been inconsistent. He lost to Tomas Berdych in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, a player he’d beaten 17 times in a row since 2007. In February, he won the title on the clay in Buenos Aires, his first since Roland Garros in June. Although he lost in the semifinals of Monte Carlo last week to Djokovic, Nadal later called it the best week of the season and it had boosted his confidence. He also revealed he’d been using a different racket with wider strings that gave him more top-spin.
Nadal was a different player yesterday against Fognini, making errors and failing to dictate play with his forehand. His shots frequently dropped short.
“Right now all I can do is accept a situation that is obviously a serious blow, especially after the confidence I gained in Monte Carlo,” Nadal said yesterday.
With a game built on athleticism, top-spin laden shots and mental toughness, Nadal has won 47 titles on the high-bouncing red clay, which makes him the most dominant clay-courter of his generation.
He now travels to the Madrid Masters, where he’s won three titles, followed by the Rome Open, which he’s won seven times.
“I can either accept this or die, and since I want to keep on playing I can only learn from this experience and work even harder,” he said. “I need to improve and I’ll do everything I can do to be back on my feet again.”