If you had read my preview about the French Open, then watched the tournament unfold, you probably think I’m a hack who hasn’t the slightest clue what I’m talking about. And you might be right. So I’ll try again. But this time I’m going to analyze what makes Rafael Nadal a French Open winning machine. And it begins and ends with his psychological make-up. Please stay awake….
Putting Nadal’s Run In Perspective
On Sunday, Rafael Nadal extended his French Open champion streak to nine. This gives him a comfortable lead for most titles at a single event. Impressive to say the least. Federer’s magnificent runs of seven titles at Wimbledon, five at the US Open , and four in Australia are child’s play compared to this…. or are they?
In my mind what separates Federer from most players is his versatility. Winning hand fulls of titles in different locations. While Nadal’s accomplishments on clay, and especially in Paris, are phenomenal in quantity, he has yet to win more than two titles at any other grand slam.
If you are a Nadal fan, don’t take my tone as disparaging. I am not claiming Federer is better than Nadal. They are both on the same level as far as I’m concerned, regarding hall of fame status. Just for different reasons. But this comparison with Federer is merely an aside. I’m trying to get you thinking about Nadal in terms of why he is infinitely more consistent at this specific tournament.
People like things a certain way. It’s no secret. Our brain feels more comfortable, and in turn, so do we. Tennis is the kind of environment where familiarity is of the utmost importance. Look at Jimmy Connors at the 1991 US Open. There’s no reason that a 39 year old man should ever go past the first round of a grand slam tournament. But Jimmy felt at home in New York, and the crowd aided him with their incessant exuberance. A 39 year old man channeled the energy of a 19 year old all the way to the semifinals.
Nadal seems to feel a similar sense of comfort at Roland Garros, only he feels it EVERY SINGLE YEAR. But if you watch Nadal enough, you will realize that his success here isn’t a surprise. It’s just another of his many quirks. Yep, I’m labeling his ability to win the French Open as being a quirk. A psychological defect. But defect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It just means he approaches Roland Garros in a different way than the normal joe. Here are a few of his other well-known quirks. Among them:
Never touching the out line when walking to his chair.
Placing two water bottles next to each other, next to his chair
Picking his rear-end between points (with his fingers, yummy)
Harmless enough, right? But here’s the most important one:
Loving Roland Garros!
Nadal’s success at the French Open comes from his obsessive-compulsive nature for things to be a certain way. He grew up on clay, so he desires to play on it all the time. Like any OCD individual, his disorder is validated every time something good results from it (aka winning!). So the nine titles have made him feel pretty secure in his ways. But like any OCD individual, he has significant psychological letdowns when he is not in a familiar space or circumstance. For example, the past two Wimbledons…
Nadal has lost in the first round to opponents who normally couldn’t carry his jockstrap. And in both cases, the center court had to close its retractable roof during his match. It shouldn’t be enough to spook most people, but Nadal isn’t most people. Last year in particular, he lost in STRAIGHT SETS to the 135th ranked player in the world. Yep, that’s a lot of digits. His drops in play make no black and white sense. The only way to reason them is through a psychological prism. When overpowered by someone of a lesser ability, in an unfamiliar environment, and without a ton of fan support (he usually has a lot of support, but people like to cheer for the underdog), Nadal’s confidence eludes him. But everyone has their deficiencies, and Nadal has fewer than most.
But what he lacks in dominance of certain other tournaments, Nadal more than makes up for at the French. It is an interesting case study of a guy who uses OCD to become a great champion. Maybe if I pick my butt a few thousand times I will hit a forehand like Nadal, only I may decide to wash my hands afterwards.