Rafael Nadal is like a Spanish bull-fighter performing to a crowd — slaying the bull and sending the audience into raptures with every cry of Vamos. Only in his case, the bull is the opponent on the other side of the net. However, the better the quality of the opponent, the higher he seems to be able to raise his game and the more frenzied the crowd becomes.
But for a bull fighter, having the confidence to walk into the arena without an iota of doubt in his mind is paramount. They say, the bulls can smell fear. And once they do that, they are uncontrollable monuments of rage.
This year, despite all the success he has had on clay over his career, Nadal seems fearful. On the red clay of Roland Garros, he was untouchable – in his mind as well as in the eyes of everyone watching. His record inspired awe. But now, he seems to doubt himself.
“Seriously, I am not confident,” said the Majorcan after the win over Ljubicic. “I am not playing well enough to win this tournament with the level today. It’s true. You have to be realistic. Today, I am not playing well enough to win this tournament, we will see after tomorrow if I am ready to play at this level. I won the final five times already here; I didn’t have an obligation to win six.”
No obligation, yes. But one would have thought that a win would be par for the course, given his record at the French Open. Or is it that he is starting to feel the pressure that Novak Djokovic’s record run is exerting.
The score lines, with the exception of the match against John Isner, have seemed comfortable, but the manner of his play leaves a lot to be desired. At his best, Nadal looks to take the ball on the up and force the pace. But this time, he has often parked himself a foot behind the baseline and just tried to soak up the pressure.
A strategy like that can work, but after seeing Djokovic defeat the Spaniard at Barcelona and Spain, perhaps the rest of the tennis world is inspired as well. They are attacking him; they are sensing fear.
Over the years, Nadal has lost just 10 sets at Roland Garros. When you stack that up against the 113 sets that has won, you realise just how good he has been. Perhaps, the knowledge that his number one ranking will go to Djokovic soon, as early as Friday if the Serbian wins his semi-final against Federer, is pushing him to the brink. Perhaps, it’s just tiredness.
“I’m a bit tired right now, frankly,” Rafa told his native press. “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.”
“So your question is, How do I manage all this? My answer is, I try and improve daily. I wake up very happy to practise 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.”
He added: “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.”
If all else fails, there is still one thing that Nadal will continue to do: he’ll try his best; he’ll try his best even if it breaks him. But as we’ve seen in the past, his best often breaks the opposition. And even if he isn’t too confident, if Federer can do him a favour for old times sake and beat Djokovic, we’ll probably see the old Nadal return in a jiffy.