Is Rafa Ready?
May 30, 2011 -- Rafael Nadal has lost one match at Roland Garros. He is considered the best clay courter by a large percent of tennis aficionados. But the #1 seed told the press today, "I am not confident."
It wasn't the first time he's said something of this nature, during the 2011 French Open.
After his 5-set win over John Isner, Nadal said, "I didn't play free after the second set. It was tough." And ... "You play with lots of pressure because this tournament is very, very important to me."
Nadal feel pressure? In Paris!
Nadal's comment about the importance of The French Open came from his heart. He loves Roland Garros and the red clay. He is the undisputed King of Clay. Novak Djokovic nips at his heels; however, and until the day he can upset Nadal on Court Philippe Chatrier, the crown rests firmly on Nadal's head. And if these two meet this Sunday in the final, and Djokovic wins, the royal name will remain with Rafa.
But Novak has certainly infiltrated Nadal's mind. And the noise has affected his game. He believes he practices better than he plays in a match. Club players around the world can relate to that. 'Why can't I play matches like I do in practice?' Thousands of teaching professionals hear that question daily.
Rafael Nadal knows deeply how dangerous his doubts could be. Kim Clijsters admitted that she started to doubt herself in her loss against Arantxa Rus, a fledgling with a total of twelve wins on tour.
Clijsters' has a champion's mentality. She was en route to win, perhaps, her third major in a row. As soon as doubt crept in her mind, and she didn't squash it ... her strokes went, her timing wigged out, and her confidence fell through the red clay.
Tennis is a mental game.
Nadal defeated Ivan Ljubicic in straight sets today -- 75 63 63. In a conversation with Mats Wilander later this afternoon, Wilander complimented Nadal, "You played the big points well." But, Nadal looked uneasy, almost shy. He hesitated, saying, "I'm a little bit up and down. [I'm] playing a little bit more nervous."
Wilander acknowledged the honesty with which Nadal spoke. However, the three-time Roland Garros champion Wilander also wondered aloud if Nadal had made the right choice by airing his misgivings.
"Nadal is playing with less instinct," Mats added. "He's thinking, which happens as you get older.
Wilander knows firsthand the myriad experiences that wash in, out, and through you over the two weeks of Roland Garros. From the first round match to the championship match emotions can go every which way, errant thoughts can dive bomb your brain, and incoming problems and unexpected fluctuations in weather can disrupt serenity.
Nadal calls his brand of serenity, his 'calm.' Right now, he believes he has misplaced his calm.
Wilander doesn't think so.
He remembers he didn't play well the first week, one year, and won the title. He also has come into Paris feeling great and confident, thinking he could win the whole thing only to lose.
"Nadal is winning easily, but not playing great," Mats said.
The Spaniard told the international press that he should hit the ball with more conviction. That he made three mistakes in a row. "This cannot happen," he said, emphatically.
Nadal is jostled. His face tells the story, too. He frequently knits his brows when he moves from point to point and gives his opponent the stare down. That's an on-target Nadal. A Nadal that's fully present to his game, his athleticism, and the challenge on court.
Lately, though, his face reveals worry. His words confirm it.
Roger Federer probably can relate to what his friend is going through. Federer at one time said he'd created a monster, that his losses were fuel for the inevitable and all consuming fire of doom. These were the times when Nadal wagged the tail of the tour, threatening Federer's dominance. Many said, "Rafa's in his head."
Now, Djokovic had purchased some property in Nadal's head. The tide has turned.
Through the eyes of two defeated opponents, Rafa's shaky legs appeared differently. John Isner's astonishment at the level of Rafa's game in the last two sets of their first-round blockbuster was palpable. "I've never seen tennis like that ever," the lanky American said.
Ivan Ljubicic was confident before his match against Nadal. He had defeated Nadal in Indian Wells in 2010 and plays a style of tennis that can pressure the Spaniard's. Ljubicic serves well and earns points easily if it's clicking. Today it wasn't, he said.
"He [Nadal] relaxed and played well in the second and third sets," Ljubicic said. "He's at the level he'd like to be at. He has four matches under his belt. If he manages to win the next one, his confidence will be back."
Two-time finalist -- 2009 and 2010 -- Robin Soderling is next for Nadal. The #5 seed is the man that beat Nadal in Paris. It came in the third round of 2009.
"2009 helped me a lot," Soderling said today, after his victory over Frenchman Gilles Simon. "Before that I had never passed the third round in any Grand Slam. After I proved I can do well."
Soderling was one of the most unlikely players to have pulled the slippery red clay out from under Rafa's feet. The Swede performs, or had performed, best on hard courts, indoor hard courts. However, his victory has propelled his career to new heights.
"Every time I come back here it gives me good feelings," Soderling said. "It gives me a lot of confidence."
Nadal avenged his loss to Soderling in last year's Roland Garros final, defeating the hard-hitting Swede. Wednesday Nadal will have to do it again, confidently or with butterflies in his stomach.