Wednesday, June 01, 2011 /by

Rn PARIS—There’s been a notion at this year’s French Open that Rafael Nadal has been poor-mouthing his own play, talking himself down, putting on a woe-is-the-five-time-champ act.

And there has been some of that. Before today, Nadal hadn’t come out and said that he had played well over the course of an entire match. But the truth is, there has been some of everything from Nadal in the interview room the last couple of weeks, from the dire to the confident to the confusing to the practical. The real story is how much this former man of few English words, this master of the mysteriously profound aphorism, has been rambling in Paris. Rafa has even taken the time to outline a new ATP schedule for the future. The last few months are reserved for 250-level tournaments, and the rankings are compiled over the course of two years. He’s put some thought into it; all that time in first class will probably do that to you.

Today, Nadal began by admitting that he had played “better” against Robin Soderling. That was it to start. Then, after a few more questions along this line, he said OK, the hell with it, this really was a “very good” performance from start to finish, his best so far. Nadal even went ahead and took some positives from his slightly shaky third set, in which he squandered an early break. He said that gutting out a tiebreaker after losing the first point of it will help sharpen him for the rest of the tournament.

To me, Nadal hasn’t been poor-mouthing his play so much as doing what he always does: being realistic about the short-term, fatalistic about the long. Fans and journalists have focused on the fact that he’s said he’s not “playing well enough to win the tournament.” But this year, as he knows after Rome and Madrid, with Novak Djokovic alive and well and crushing the ball, he’s probably going to have to play as well as he ever has to win it again. Today Nadal was asked again if he was playing well enough to win the tournament. He didn't take the bait. "I'm playing well enough to make the semifinals," he said, without a smile.

The presence of Djokovic has changed things for Rafa here. Losing twice to him has shaken his confidence, no doubt. But in a head as level as Nadal’s, those losses may also have a silver lining. He said the other day that, after winning the tournament five times, he felt no “obligation” to win it a sixth, no obligation to tie Bjorn Borg’s record, no obligation always to be the French Open champion. The defeats in Madrid and Rome, honest defeats to a man who was simply too good, may have liberated Nadal from some of the pressure that used to come from being the undisputed king of clay—it’s no longer a disaster if he loses in Paris; its no longer his tournament to lose.

More important, to me, was what Nadal said about his game after his last match, against Ivan Ljubicic. “I have to hit the ball with a little bit more conviction, in my opinion,” he said, despite winning in straight sets. He was right, and he did that today. Nadal came out with a lot of positive energy, seemingly determined to get an early break, which he did. He came out moving and hitting more freely than he had to this point. His forehand had a little extra bite and a little extra bounce. Soderling, who’s at least 6-foot-3, had to take most of his backhands at shoulder level or above. This forces the big man to hit rally balls rather than try to penetrate from that side, a scenario that the much more consistent Rafa will be happy to keep going all afternoon and evening and into the next day if he can.

It wasn’t just the meat and potatoes that he had going. Nadal hit the backpedaling inside-in forehand for winners—that’s a strutting, full confidence shot. He defended well and, as Soderling said later, his serve was effective on a windy day. The first two sets weren’t close, but the rallies were challenging, side-to-side duels that Nadal was often forced to come up with something special—a wrong-foot forehand down the line, or one that dive-bombed near the baseline—to win. From the press seats along the sideline, Nadal’s shots had a different weight, depth, and trajectory than they had against Ljubicic. More, as Rafa would say, conviction.

Yesterday it was Federer, today it was Nadal. The old masters won their quarterfinals in similar fashion—they rolled through the first two sets and found a way to eke out a tight third. How many times have each of them done this in the past, threaded their way past potentially dangerous quarterfinals seemingly without a hitch? It’s not as easy as they make it look. Nadal has said this week that he feels as if he’s been playing for 100 years, and that with the 11-month schedule, tennis has become a job when he wishes it were still a “passion.”

This is how it works. Nadal pushed Federer up, made him seem older, the veteran; Djokovic may be in the process of doing the same to Nadal—they may be similar ages, but Nadal has more miles on him, more pressure moments felt and survived. But there’s an upside to getting older. Today Nadal admitted that he was nervous in the third set, and you could see that his shots dropped shorter and he retreated behind the baseline. But just like Federer, Nadal has won so much by now, that underlying those short-term nerves is an underlying bedrock of confidence, a sense, mixed with the anxiety of the moment, that he’ll find a way because he’s found it so many times before.

Against Monfils yesterday, Federer showed a few nerves late in the third. But he didn’t miss a shot once he got to the tiebreaker. Today, at 5-5 in the third, Nadal hit a forehand that didn’t even reach the net, and he had to save three break points. When they reached the tiebreaker, though, he also didn’t miss a shot. For the first seven points, he stayed back and rallied. At 4-3, Nadal hit an ace. At 5-3, he hit a forehand bomb for a winner.

For a guy who feels like he’s been out there for a hundred years, the passion is still evident in every small thing that Nadal does. As he said today, you have to "enjoy the suffering a little." The winning, too. The match over, he chucked his racquet to the side and jumped in the air. When his opponent walked off and was cheered, Nadal joined in. As he watched Soderling, he caught a glimpse of Uncle Toni in the stands out of the corner of his eye. Rafa squinted hard—his psych-up face—and gave his Uncle a quick fist-pump. Then he started clapping again.

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