French Open 2011: Is this where it starts for Nadal?
There has been an unfamiliar air about five-time champion Nadal in Paris, writes Marianne Bevis
Rafael Nadal’s record on clay -31 titles -has few parallels, and his achievements in Paris in particular are the stuff of legend.
Since he turned professional 10 years ago, at just 15, he has won 224 of 242 clay matches. This year alone he has won 21 out of 23, winning two titles -a seventh in Monte Carlo and a sixth in Barcelona -from four finals.
He has won the French Open five times, losing just one match out of 42 played. That was in the fourth round in 2009 and he afterwards withdrew from competition until August due to tendinitis in the knees.
In taking last year’s title, Nadal did not drop a set and became the first man to complete the “clay slam” of three masters and the French Open.
Yet this year, despite remaining most experts’ favourite for the French title, Nadal has been showing the smallest signs of vulnerability.
He has, of course, suffered at the hands of the outstanding player of the moment, Novak Djokovic, in four finals -including the clay of Madrid and Rome -but then no-one else has solved the Djokovic riddle this year, either.
Nadal has also found the 2011 playing conditions to be far from perfect for his style of tennis. While the controversy over the new Babolat balls has continued into the second week, some players are enjoying their sprightly performance on the relatively fast, dry courts.
Nadal, though, has found it more difficult than usual to generate the spin and weight on his shots that normally devastate the competition.
Which of these factors are implicated in the unexpected battles that Nadal has faced in Roland Garros is not clear.
He took five sets and a recovery from two-sets-to-one down to come through his first-round against John Isner. Against Pablo Andujar, he needed three-and-a-quarter hours and a final set tie-breaker.
Then against qualifier and world No227 Antonio Veic, the Nadal clouds seem to lift. But in his fourth-round test against Ivan Ljuvicic, the clouds seem to hang around his furrowed brow again.
It was a strange match that began with great expectations. The morning was warm and so was the crowd for a meeting between Nadal and the popular veteran Ivan Ljubicic.
The Croat, in the autumn of a 13-year career, has slid to 37 in the rankings, but he always puts on a sterling show of big serving, glorious backhands and sporting character.
He was also, this year, proving to be one of the men to enjoy the fast conditions, and he had not dropped a set in disposing of seeds Sam Querrey and Fernando Verdasco.
Yet his record on clay suggested he would trouble Nadal little: He won just three games in this year’s meeting at Monte Carlo.
As they took to Philipp Chatrier, the hot weather had begun to cool as clouds skittered across the sky: a harbinger, perhaps, of what became one of the more unsatisfactory matches in Paris thus far.
By the third game, Nadal had broken serve and by the sixth, Ljubicic had broken back. Neither man found any consistency and the errors poured from both rackets.
By 5-5, Nadal was on 12 unforced errors and Ljubicic on 22, but it was Nadal who managed the next crucial break in the 11th game and he served out a messy first set, 7-5, with the aid of just five winners.
The second set produced little more flow or assurance from either player. Despite having one of the best serves in the game, Ljubicic bottomed out at just 39 percent of first serves and had to defend break points in his opening game.
He held, but Nadal worked more break point chances at 3-3, though his own error count was now up to 16. Nadal was still finding little consistency on his forehand but he took a second break and the set, 6-3.
Nadal’s run continued with a fifth straight game and he worked a love break to lead 3-1. Yet still, rather than apply the thumbscrews, he went 0-40 down and was broken at the third attempt.
Perhaps triggered by this threat, Nadal found some of the energy that had been missing thus far and broke for the final coup de grace.
He served out the match, 6-3, but there seemed little joy in the win -a rare thing from this most enthusiastic of victors.
Perhaps he realised that he had been let off the hook by an opponent producing a disappointing array of errors -17 in the final set, 48 in the match. Perhaps he was simply disappointed by his own slow and laborious progress towards his quarter-final place.
The match that had preceded Nadal’s on this particular day featured the charming and eloquent No6 seed from the women’s draw, Li Na. She was fighting for her own quarter-final place against one of the favourites for the title, Petra Kvitova, and she lost the first set. Li then managed to find her crisp and accurate best to turn the match around for a win.
Asked what she thought of her difficult passage, she showed the inner steel that has brought her growing rewards in her recent Grand Slam career.
“If I win in the fourth round, what should I say? That I played bad tennis? I don’t think so. I’ve tried to keep the same level as Melbourne, or even better,” she said.
“I didn’t like clay courts, but I’m still in the quarter-finals. For a professional player, if you don’t like the arena, the weather, the surface, you still have to play the match. You have no choice. You have to challenge yourself to play.”
It was a sentiment redolent of the champion that is Nadal. He, too, struggled to find his best and has wrestled with conditions that suit his tennis less well than they suit some others.
He is also coming to terms with defeats at the hands of a man expected to claim the No1 ranking by the end of Roland Garros -and Djokovic has now come within touching distance after receiving a walkover to the semi-finals.
Yet Nadal has found a way to keep in the race. He had, therefore, a similar bullish tone in his press conference.
“Sometimes it is more important to win when you are not playing well. I am in the quarter-finals, I play six finals in a row, and I am in a position to be No1 at end of year – I am No1 until next week.
“But the No1 cannot always play at the No1 level. I must be realistic: For the moment I don’t play good enough to be in a position to win the tournament.”
It was a frank and brave admission of what it takes both to become a champion and to stay a champion in the face of new challenges. He went on: “I have won here five times. I have no obligation to win six times, but I’m going to try.”
And he won’t yet be looking ahead to another confrontation with the man who has stolen his thunder, Djokovic. For Nadal first faces, in an ironic turn of events, the very man who scored that only defeat over Nadal at Roland Garros – Robin Soderling.
The Swede, considering he is No5 in the world, has made very quiet progress through the draw as he targets a third Roland Garros final in succession.
Nadal knows he will have to produce his best French Open style to get any further -and it will be a brave man who suggests he won’t do just that.