What the heck is going on with Rafael Nadal? More mailbag

Wednesday April 30th, 2014

Rafael Nadal lost in the quarterfinals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona -- events he's previously dominated.
Getty Images

This week, we present our first all-Twitter mailbag. This will continue to be a thing as we deal with some technical issues and a platform switch, so please keep sending questions via Twitter (@jon_wertheim). At the risk of piling on, blame the Donald Sterling firestorm for the brevity of this mailbag.

Hot topic of week: After two losses on clay, would you still pick Rafael Nadal as the favorite at Roland Garros? Do we need to see how he performs in Rome and Madrid?
-- Nicole Desplat, ‪@playersready

• This is a good question -- WTHIGOW Nadal? -- that came up several times. Nadal winning the French Open tends to be as predictable as time and tide, as the sun rising in the East and Marc Maron undercutting his otherwise excellent podcast with heroic quotients of narcissism. After dominating the clay-court lead-ups, Nadal has won at Roland Garros every year but one since 2005. Put another way: He has won the French Open more times than any male player has won any other major.

And yet ... watch Nadal in 2014 and you do not see a champion. You see a player unsure of himself, who has lost twice on clay, stumbled prematurely in Indian Wells after winning last year and lost in the Australian Open final. In some ways, this is in keeping with Nadal's career rhythms. He looks ready to conquer the world and eclipse Roger Federer; then he falters. He looks passive and on the downside of his career; suddenly, he turns in a year like 2013. If you think his spin-laden shots dip and rise in strange directions, consider his career trajectory.

If I can put off answering, I say we wait until one more event before hazarding a guess as to his French Open prospects. But if I had to answer today -- after a long and reverential pause to acknowledge what he's done in Paris over the last decade -- I'd be inclined to tip a new winner.

Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros: Will one player win at least two of those three tournaments?
-- Tom Van Arsdel, ‪@TomVanArsdel

• Men or women? Serena Williams has had some lapses this year, but she's capable of running roughshod over the field -- especially with Victoria Azarenka on the shelf. As for the men, I have a few thoughts:

1. Based on history, most of us would bet the house that Nadal would take two of three. (If, of course, we bet on tennis, which we don't under penalty of expulsion from the grounds, never mind that the ATP accepts title sponsorship from Betathome.com.) But given recent history, Nadal is far from a sure thing.

2. Novak Djokovic's wrist injury complicates matters.

3. It's easy to be buoyant about Roger Federer's level of play in 2014. But you expect a dip on clay. It just asks too much of him, especially at this stage of his career.

4. Stanislas Wawrinka is a real wild card here.

Kei Nishikori breezed through to win the Barcelona Open following Rafael Nadal's loss in the quarterfinals.
Getty Images

Folks are always quick to heap praise on coaches when a player does well. Can we credit Michael Chang with Kei Nishikori's recent surge?
-- Jonathan Newman, ‪@SportScribeBlog

• Given that coaches are unable to actually coach during matches, there's a limit to how much praise and blame they ought to get. Players are not only hitting the ball but also making the strategic calls and doing their own troubleshooting during matches. (Have I mentioned how much I despise on-court coaching on the WTA Tour? Perhaps I have.)

But, sure, strictly as an exercise in correlation, it's hard to see Nishikori's surge and not notice that it overlaps with Chang's tenure. Candidly -- we're all about candor -- you don't hear much about this relationship. We'll investigate in Paris.

Who wins a Grand Slam first, Nishikori or Grigor Dimitrov? And if you think neither wins a Grand Slam, who reaches more finals or semifinals?
-- Dominic Johnson, ‪@dom_johnson

• Aha! You've given me an out. As for the first to win a Slam, I have to go with the player armed with more weapons, and in this case, it's Dimitrov. He may be less steady, less fleet afoot and (if not by much, especially since he's been with the excellent fitness trainer Rory Cordial) a lesser defensive player than Nishikori, but Dimitrov has the bigger game. That matters, especially when you're required to win 21 sets in two weeks. As for more semifinals, I could see Nishikori becoming a postmodern David Ferrer, who will consistently grind his way to the latter rounds.

How is Eugenie Bouchard perceived around the WTA Tour? Canadian media saying she may not be such the sweetheart behind the scenes?
-- Frank Roch, ‪@frankroch

• I haven't seen those reports. Bouchard obviously has -- how to put this? -- a portfolio that goes beyond on-court results, which means many things. It means that agents will compete for her services -- all that goes with a bidding war. It means the attention she generates may stir jealousy among players who may have achieved more -- Bouchard is currently No. 18 -- but gotten noticed less. It means that she is hyper-scrutinized.

Here's my truth serum response: I've had nothing but pleasant interactions with Bouchard. As to whether she is a "sweetheart," I hope the answer is "no." This is competitive sports.

And there's this.

Some players (such as Tomas Berdych) sometimes cross the center hash when serving. It's never called as a foot fault. Why not?
-- Irene, ‪@renrentennisfan

Where's Shino when you need her?

Shots, miscellany

• Why does Dwyane Wade admire Serena Williams?

• On the occasion of their April 29 birthday, here's a video tribute to Bob and Mike Bryan.

• Who wants to buy Monica Seles' home?

Looking for a tennis instructor?

Congrats to Elena Dementieva.

• Chuck McGill, the sports editor for the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virginia, won the inaugural Tennis Media Award for his story about Tera Winfree, who is playing again after having a double lung transplant in 2009.

• Doug Robson reports that the USTA may look to NASCAR and its newly developed Air Titan 2.0 to help with rain delays.

From our friends at the All England Club: "This year The Championships will be played on 17 courts. Courts 14 and 15 will not be in play having been excavated as part of the Master Plan to allow the creation of additional space, which will provide accommodation for Ball Boys and Ball Girls, photographers and for an expanded 24-hour media restaurant from 2015. No. 3 Court will have an extra 198 unreserved seats offering improved value to spectators with Grounds Passes."

• Dushyant from Sunnyvale, Calif., has long-lost brothers: Stanislas Wawrinka and Shawn Ashmore of The Following.

• Jason of Austin thinks he can top that with long-lost sisters: actress Jenna Fischer and Mirka Federer.

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