by Pete Bodo
PARIS—The irony of it all will not be lost on most of you. Rafael Nadal, No. 1 in the world, defending champion here at the French Open and a clay-court warrior who's lost exactly one match in what is now his seventh year of competition on the red plains of Roland Garros, is said to be in a crisis.
It's a crisis of "confidence."
This wouldn't be such an absurd idea if it were merely the press trying to whip up its usual mischief based on those two losses opn red clay to Novak Djokovic in recent weeks. But it appears that Nadal buys into the narrative, too. It shows in his pained or merely worried facial expressions on the court. It shows in those games that he now sometimes blows, allowing what once were 6-1 or 6-2 sets to become fat, 6-4 or even 7-5. And it shows in how sincerely he tackles the questions flung at him, questions with enough negative implications to make any proud player prickly or bellicose.
After a straight-sets win over Ivan Ljubicic today, Nadal said it was "a fantastic result to be in the quarterfinals. . . without losing a set" and in the next breath he volunteered: "(But) I think I still playing a little bit with too anxious for moments, so it happened today, no?"
It's a tightrope Nadal is walking, trying to be honest and objective without further undermining his confidence with his admissions (just making the effort deserves an "A," given how the relation of top players with the press generally ranges from suspicion-laden to downright adversarial). You could more easily extract a molar from the mouth of most tennis players than the admission, "I am not worthy."
"Win this tournament again? " Nadal asked, somewhat rhetorically. "No, seriously, I am not confident. I am not playing enough well to win this tournament at the (level) of today. That's the true. The thing is you have to be realist, and today I'm not playing enough well to win this tournament. We will see after tomorrow if I am ready to play at this level. I going to try. . ."
If you've observed Nadal long enough, you probably know that his humility is neither intentionally self-effacing nor self-serving; it's actually his lodestar. He's no saint, but as far as appealing sources of motivation and perhaps even egotism go, it's a good one. Humility has brought him awful far, and if nothing else it's kept him remarkably free of the Big Three afflictions to which great players fall prey when they hit some rough sledding: petulance, paranoia and peevishness.
Still, there are glimmers of rebellion against the nature of the questions now being put to him, and the implications they carry. He offers gentle reminders and affirmations of his abilities and achievements. The end of the answer about his form, quoted above, was: "But I won four times already here, five times already here. I don't have an obligation to win six. I going to try for sure."
Or, consider this surprisingly philosophical meditation on the persistent use of the word "problem" in these deconstructions of Nadal's psychic and physical state: "People talk a lot about the problems I have. That's true. I'm not playing my best tennis, but, you know, people who want to find problems can always find them. The objective is to look beyond that. . .
"People should stop using the word 'problem.' We should try to find solutions and play with happiness, which is what I know. I know how to do this, being aggressive and intensive. I have nearly found this type of game again. I have positive thoughts, and next match is going to be important. If I don't win the match, I'll walk back home. But I'll be happy, because I know I'll have done everything I can so that I can fight until the end."
This may sound suspiciously like the tennis equivalent of the plea for world peace, but it's about the least antagonistic thing he could say, given how doggedly he's peppered with questions about a real or imagined decline of confidence, or game. Almost every question asked of Nadal these days is either overtly or implicitly a criticism of his game, and often couched in a form that demands that he compare himiself to. . . himself.
I'm a little surprised that Rafa, a fisherman himself, would rise to some of this bait. When he was asked to compare his present form with the past—any old time in the past since he began winning this tournament—he appeared to blow off the query. But, surprisingly, he returned to it.
"Going to be long if I have to have all the comparisons. In 2006 I think I didn't play well during all the tournament; in 2007, normal; 2008, I played fantastic, but I played fantastic especially quarterfinals, semifinals, and final. 2009 I think I played terrible all the tournament; 2010, so?so. Much better semifinals and finals than previous matches. Very so?so, in my opinion, no? This year, the second match was especially bad. First match wasn't that bad, in my opinion. Second match was bad level. Third match was positive, I think."
My colleague Ubaldo Scanagatta picked up on all this in today's presser and opined that in his forty-plus years of covering tennis, he'd never seen a No. 1 player subjected to so much, well, grief, about how "badly" he's playing while holding his position. Did Nadal find this surprising (read: irritating), Scanagatta wanted to know?
"No, for me that's something fantastic. That's true, no? All the day we are talking about I am playing very bad, but I am in quarterfinals. I play six finals in a row this year. I am having a very good year. One player is doing better than me. That's all."
I never did get to pose a question, which would have been something like this: Are you aware of the irony in this situation, where Djovovic is playing Nadal to your Federer? Didn't we recently go through something like this when Nadal emerged to establish himself as a rival to Federer? Weren't you supposed to be in Federer's head, instead of Djokovic being in yours?
The way Djokovic is playing, he brings a whole new order-of-intensity to a familiar struggle. Djokovic is coming on with all the force you expect from someone who was long oppressed. And Djokovic is making both Nadal and Federer reap the whirlwind.
In truth, Federer and Nadal both appear to be bearing up pretty well under this onslaught, and while Djokovic is indeed on an amazing run, it's still a long year, a long career. Nobody really knows what tomorrow will bring, although we know what it will bring for Nadal. Another opporutnity to do what he's always done best, a task in which his frenemy Federer has been what reformed drunks like to call an "enabler."
"I'm a bit tired right now, frankly," Rafa told his native press today. "But also, I feel good. I'm really happy. I have this desire to do things well. I would like to go through difficult moments and to overcome these obstacles. Sometimes things don't unravel the way you want them to develop, but sometimes it's necessary to go through these difficulties.
"I've reached the quarterfinals here at Roland Garros. It's been six finals for me here. For the time being, I would say everything is okay. So your question is, How do I manage all this? My answer is, I try and improve daily. I wake up very happy to practice and I'm really glad. So far things are going well. Of course there are some tiny obstacles I have to overcome, and I'll do it. If I don't do it, as I told you before, then I will try and improve next time I play another tournament. That's the only solution I can think of.
"There aren't that many options out there. You have to write a lot of papers on this, but tennis is a rather simple sport sometimes. Don't try and split hairs, you know. This sport is not too much of a tactical sport sometimes. There aren't that many explanations. If you play well, you have more options. You know what have to do to play well. As I keep on saying, I'll try."
Of that, at least, we have no doubt.