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Keep Calm And Carry On: RAFA Nadal’s Loss In Rome Tennis Is Not The End Of The World

By Alix Ramsay

No, hell has not frozen over – not yet, at least. Then again, in the madness of 2020, count nothing out. But, as far as we are aware, the earth is still spinning on its axis, the sun is still rising in the east and setting in the west and hell is still burning nicely.

But Rafa Nadal has been beaten on clay – and by Diego Schwartzman, no less. That is the same Diego Schwartzman who has been befuddling the best for years but who had failed to lay a glove on Rafa in nine previous meetings. The diminutive but crafty Argentine took a little over two hours to jink past his former nemesis 6-2, 7-5 in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open.

In the stifling humidity, the conditions were heavy and Rafa looked rusty. Schwartzman, on the other hand, was the man with the plan.

After a ropey few weeks since the tour restarted (played five, won two), Schwartzman came to Rome expecting little. He knew from painful experience what to expect from the clay court master so, keeping the ball well away from Nadal’s forehand, he set to work on the Spaniard’s backhand. And, keeping his old foe on the back foot as he mixed up the pace, Schwartzman ran away with the first set. He let Nadal back into the match in the second set – but only briefly. The man from Buenos Aires was simply the better player on the night.

Diego Schwartzman of Argentina in action during his men’s singles quarter-finals round match against Rafael Nadal.

“We can find excuses, but I didn’t play well enough,” Nadal said simply. “Then we have to think internally, ‘Why? How can I fix it?’ Now is not the moment to find excuses. It’s the moment to accept that I didn’t play well enough; it wasn’t my night at all. He played a great match, and I think I didn’t.

“[It was] a super heavy evening in terms of humidity. Conditions out there were much heavier than the previous days in terms of the bounces of the ball. For me was difficult to push him back. He did a great job. I tried hard in the second, but losing serve three times in a row, then you need to [hope] for a miracle. I did twice, but the third one, even if I was 15-30, was not possible.

Rafael Nadal of Spain changes his shirt in the heat and humidty.

“When this happens, you have to lose. These things can happen. After such a long time without competing, I played two good matches and a bad one against a good opponent today. That’s how it is. I want to congratulate Diego, and I’m going to keep working.”

That work will be carried out at home in Mallorca. Nadal is heading back to the practice courts at his academy to work on his serve (a meagre 43 per cent accuracy did little for his hopes on Saturday night) and to try and scrape the rust from the rest of his game before the start of Roland Garros next weekend.

In this chaotic year, the recent matches have been impossible to predict. Who knew Novak Djokovic would get himself defaulted from the US Open? Who knew Vika Azarenka would reach the US Open final? Who knew we would even have had a US Open? As a result, Nadal losing on clay just before the French Open ought not to have seemed quite so staggering.

Last year, he headed into the clay court season (back in the old days when it was held in the spring) and lost in the semi-finals of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid, beaten by Fabio Fognini, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas respectively. That did not stop him from winning his 12th Roland Garros title, though.

Nadal and Schwartzman after their men’s singles quarter-finals round match at the Italian Open.

Twelve months on and he has had far fewer matches but, then, everyone is in exactly the same position. Nadal looked in to be in excellent nick in his first two rounds at the Foro Italico but he was never under any pressure. Schwartzman found a way to apply that pressure and he got his reward. Yet if anyone knows how to analyse his game and fine tune it, it is Rafa. One loss on a deserted court in Rome does not undo a lifetime of experience and knowledge.

“It’s an exceptional and unpredictable year,” Nadal said. “I will probably go back home and then let’s see what’s going on in Paris. I did my job here. I did a couple of things well and other things bad, and that’s it. At least I played three matches and fought until the end.

“You can’t expect to score victory after getting broken that often; I will have to fix that, and I know how to do it. I’m going to keep working and keep practicing with the right attitude and try to give myself a chance to be ready.”

It is a mad man who would bet against Nadal at Roland Garros in the next couple of weeks. With a week to work and prepare, he has time to get things right. Lucifer’s barbecue and grill looks likely to be open for business for some time yet.