05/14/2014 09:42 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

The King of Clay Has Some Chinks in His Armor, But the Worst Crack May Be His Mettle


Last year at this time Rafael Nadal was riding high. Having captured Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Madrid along with his eighth consecutive Catalan crown in Barcelona.

Even a loss to Novak Djokovic in the finals of Monte Carlo -- after 8 straight championship trophies -- had few doubting Nadal wouldn't win Rome before moving on to capture his unprecedented eighth French Open title. Oh, what a difference a year makes.

2014 appeared to be a more of the same. Rafa started the year by winning the Qatar Open. He arrived in Melbourne full of confidence and with his game humming on all cylinders. After dismantling Roger Federer in the semis, talk of Nadal winning his 14th Grand Slam and snatching the moniker of GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) from said Fed was all anyone was talking about. And why not? His opponent, Stan Wawrinka had never even taken a set off of him. The press and pundits were already handing Nadal the hardware.

But Wawrinka, unfazed by the stat sheet, quickly showed he meant business. Taking advantage of Nadal's sloppy play, unforced errors, and suspect shot selection. With the first set in hand, Wawrinka began slapping winner after winner prompting Patrick McEnroe to say, "Nadal's flat out being bullied out there, right now." McEnroe was right. That statement coupled with Wawrinka's aggressive play cast a foreboding cloud on things to come for Rafa -- and not just down under.

At 2-1 in the second set, Nadal in obvious pain called for the trainer and 90 minutes later the improbable had happened. Not only had Stan Wawrinka taken a set off Rafa for the first time ever -- he'd taken three -- dominating Nadal from the onset and maintaining his composure as Rafa fought against his injury and the reality of a second Aussie Open championship slipping away. It seems, even now -- only weeks before the start of the French Open -- missing out on a 14th Grand Slam title has had more of an effect on Rafa then anyone knew and set the tone for his season.

"I don't have to lie to anybody. After what happened to me in Australia it was a little bit harder for me to find again the intensity, the confidence, the inside power I always have," Nadal revealed after his shocking straight set loss to fellow Spaniard, David Ferrer in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo.

Like in Australia and again in Indian Wells and Miami, Rafa was being pushed around at will -- this time by Ferrer and this time on clay -- a surface he's owned for close to a decade. Something was definitely wrong. For the first time in a long time Rafa was no longer untouchable on the dirt and the competition was taking full advantage.

"The physical performance is fine. It remains something in my mind and in my game," Nadal said. The trouble was between his ears, which for a guy who has built a reputation on being mentally tough it finally made sense as to why he'd been struggling.

Like the champion he is, Rafa was determined to find his way through it. For him, Barcelona was the perfect tourney to right the ship -- a tournament where he hadn't lost since the age of 15.

Yet, just eight days after being bounced in Monte Carlo, Nadal suffered the same fate in Barcelona to another countryman, Nicolas Almagro. With numerous chances to close out the match, Rafa inexplicably played a series of loose points that lacked more than just his trademark forehand -- it exposed his mental fragility.

The cauldron of questions concerning Rafa had now boiled over. There was only one possible way for him to silence the story -- and more importantly quiet his mind -- by winning the Madrid Masters in resounding fashion.

His dogged tenacity, his wicked spin, his ability to turn defense into offense at the blink of an eye were back and on full display in the Caja Magica. It was however, Nadal's level of consistency, his "at ease" demeanor and his shouts of "Vamos," which announced his highly anticipated reversal of fortune.

Rafa made easy work of both Berdych and Bautista-Agut on his way to the finals. It not only looked but it sounded like order was about to be restored. "It was an important victory for me," said Nadal. "I have confirmation today that the improvement is real. It is very good for me." Which in turn spelled bad news for Kei Nishikori, his opponent in the finals.

Already nursing an injury and with Rafa finding his form, Nishikori was thought to have no chance. Taking a page out of both the Wawrinka and Djokovic playbooks, Nishikori opened up the court, picking on Nadal's backhand and firing away at his forehand. He overpowered Nadal, calling to mind the words of Patrick McEnroe four months earlier, "Nadal's flat out being bullied out there."

Rafa's renewed confidence he'd spoken of less than 24 hours before had vanished in a matter of minutes. Nishikori trashed Nadal 6-1 in the first and was up 4-2 in the second when Rafa began clawing back. At 4-4 and just two games away from his first Masters 1000 title, Nishikori received treatment on his back -- the same injury, which had troubled him in the semifinals against David Ferrer.

If anyone could understand what Nishikori was going through, it was Nadal. Like Nadal, in Australia, Nishikori played on. Nadal took advantage of his opponent's struggles -- winning the second set and racing out to a 3-0 lead before Nishikori was forced to retire.

Nadal hoisted the trophy -- his first title since winning Rio in February -- but it did little to quell speculation that Rafa is primed to capture his ninth French Open title.

To hear Uncle Toni tell it, Rafael is far from where he needs to be in order to win. "We did not deserve to win and (Kei) he played much better than us."

Rafa, however clearly had a different perspective. "Even though I played a bad first set, I think I played a lot better throughout this tournament," he said, "and that is the most important for me."

Nadal is a fierce competitor -- it's in his DNA. It's on display from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to bed. He's also a creature of habit. He takes comfort in his routines. He finds pleasure in practice. He's methodical when it comes to tinkering with his game. And until recently, he entered every match and played every point full of confidence.

While Nadal is down, he is far from out -- especially when it comes to a best of five format. This is a man who has faced adversity many times before -- usually coming out on the other side far better than he was before.

Djokovic, Wawrinka, Federer, Ferrer, Nishikori, Berdych, Dimitrov and Murray all pose a legitimate threat to knocking Rafa out. Still it would be foolish to underestimate his ability to again reign in Roland Garros -- regardless of what happens in Rome.

The field may have figured out the formula to beating Rafa but the bigger question remains as to whether Rafa can figure himself out in time to be crowned the King of Clay in Paris?