Rafael Nadal heads into the final fortnight of the countdown to the French Open facing uncertainty after crashing out in his bid for a sixth title at the Madrid Open.
Spain’s formerly invincible king of clay – who in most years would have at least one dirt title to hand upon arrival at Roland Garros – will have a last chance in Rome to pick up a trophy.
His mission at the Foro Italico from Monday will be to try and rescue his form prior to the start of the Grand Slam where he dreams of collecting a record 12th title.
Nadal went down in the Madrid semi-finals to young gun Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece 6-4, 2-6, 6-3, with the ninth-ranked “El Greco” exposing some of the emerging fault lines in the game of the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
“Not winning here means that I’m not going back to my hotel happy,” said Nadal, who also made semi-finals in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. “But I think I still have tennis ahead of me.”
Nadal said his longer term focus was on Roland Garros, confident that an improvement would see him contesting titles later in the season.
“In Paris, I have 11 titles. Each week that I play in this tournament is a lot of memories, a lot of unforgettable memories,” he said.
“What I have to do is to be fit and to play properly and have a high tennis level.
“If I manage to do that … I think I will still have a very good opportunity to fight for titles for the rest of the year.”
After starting slowly on clay last month after another knee injury pause, Nadal is hopeful of quick progress.
“I’ve done a few steps forward, maybe not enough, but I have improved some things. We’ll see (for how long) I can (continue to) play at a high level – and I think I will be able to continue.
“If I’m not able to do these things (play) properly, that is the end of the situation, period.
“This is a sport and in a sport it’s a matter of winning and sometimes losing and accepting both as naturally as possible.”
As in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Nadal will be defending a title in Rome after beating Alexander Zverev in the 2018 title showdown.
The second seed behind Novak Djokovic opens in the second round against one of two Frenchmen, Richard Gasquet or Jeremy Chardy.
“I’ve played just three tournaments on clay this year,” Nadal said. “It’s not much.
“I play when I want to play and I play where I want to play.
“I just play for my happiness and I play when I really want to play. That’s all.”