At the Net: Is Rafa ripe for the pickin'?

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Updated: 5/02/2014 12:14 pm

Philadelphia, PA ( - I don't know if it's time yet for him to panic, but the mighty Rafael Nadal has been anything but that during the European clay season.

Rafa, of course, was a clay court winner in Rio back in February, as he went mostly untested there, with the exception of a very tough, come-from-behind three-setter against fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar in the semifinals (including a tense 12-10 third-set tiebreak).

But on his cherished surface in Europe, the amazing Mallorcan was stunned by David Ferrer in straight sets in a quarterfinal at the Monte Carlo Masters, and the following week (last week), Rafa was stunned yet again by another fellow Spaniard, this time Nicolas Almagro, in three sets in Barcelona.

When he lost to the one-time world No. 3 Ferrer, it marked only his sixth loss to his fellow countryman in 27 matches and gave Ferrer his first clay win against Rafa in 10 long years, or their first-ever ATP-level meeting in 2004 in Stuttgart when Nadal was still a teenager.

When he lost to Almagro, it marked Rafa's first-ever loss to his capable compatriot, anywhere, dating back to 2004. Nadal had been a flawless 10-0 lifetime against the former world No. 9 Nico.

Only two other times had Nadal lost on clay in consecutive tournaments: in 2009, to Robin Soderling and Roger Federer; and in 2011, twice against Novak Djokovic. And immediately after each pair of losses, he went on torrid clay court winning streaks: 37 straight matches after his 2009 slip, and 22 straight starting in 2011.

I don't want to say that Nadal had been dominant in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, but he had appeared in the last nine Monte Carlo finals, including a record eight straight titles from 2005-2012 before falling against his great rival Djokovic in last year's finale, and the "King of Clay" had won three straight and eight of the last nine Barcelona titles, dating back to '05.

So prior to this year, Rafa had won a combined 16 of a possible 18 titles at the French lead-ups in Monte Carlo and Barca.

And Nadal's dominance at the French Open has been well documented: A record eight championships, including four straight from 2005-2008 and another four in a row over the past four editions. His only loss at Roland Garros came at the hands of Soderling in the fourth round five years ago. He's an incredible 59-1 at the storied Parisian major.

So, Nadal winning at the French Open, Monte Carlo and Barcelona has been as predictable as the sun rising in the East. He's won the French more times than any male player has won any other Grand Slam event.

But, we haven't been watching quite the same player recently. In addition to the clay stunners in Europe, the record 26-time Masters champ was wiped out by Djokovic in a hardcourt final at the Miami Masters and lost to "Dog," Alexandr Dolgopolov, in a stunning third-round setback on the hard stuff at the Indian Wells Masters.

Stunning but true, Nadal has actually failed to win a title at his last four events.

He opened his 2014 campaign with a hardcourt title in Doha, but suffered his first stunning loss of the year in his next event, the Australian Open, where he gave way to surging Swiss Stan Wawrinka in a four-set final which saw Rafa struggle mightily with a back injury.

But hasn't that been the story of Nadal's brilliant career - a story of ups and downs. One day he's on top of the world, the next he's battling knee injuries or a back problem. He's No. 1. He's not No. 1. He's No. 1 again. He's always managed to bounce back. Perhaps this year will be no different.

It would be hard to call the 13-time Grand Slam champion out unless he loses at the French for the first time in five years. Then we'd have to re-visit this convo.

Next week in Madrid, the career Golden Slam ace's hold on No. 1 will be on the line, with Djokovic set to pounce if the Spaniard falters again. Should the defending champion Nadal lose before the quarterfinals and the second-ranked Djokovic capture that Masters title, the Serbian star would regain the top spot for the first time in seven months.

For the record, the 27-year-old Nadal is a three-time champ and two-time runner-up in Madrid, while Djokovic was the winner in 2011 at an event that has been staged on clay only since 2009 after being held on hard for seven years.

Let's see how Rafa does in Madrid before we anoint Djokovic as the next French Open champ.

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