Welcome, Rafael Nadal. With just half a week left of the French Open, he finally arrived. Turns out, what he needed was a real threat today, not one looming a week or more away.
So Nadal had been moping, losing confidence, seemingly burned out for the first week and a half, trying to figure out what, if anything, he could do against Novak Djokovic in the final. And then on Wednesday in the quarterfinals, facing No. 5 Robin Soderling, the only man to ever beat him in the French Open, Nadal finally was Nadal again, winning 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (7-3).
It set up a dream semifinal for the French, with all top four seeds alive: Nadal-Andy Murray and Djokovic-Roger Federer.
“I said two days ago I am not playing good enough to win Roland Garros; we will see in two days,’’ he said. “That’s what I said. Today I played better. Much better, in my opinion. . .You have these feelings, you feel the pressure and that helps me for the next match.’’
So while Nadal has seemed like a basket case, Djokovic, relaxed, called John McEnroe for a fun practice Wednesday. It felt that everything was crashing in on Nadal.
“I have almost 25 years (his 25th birthday is Friday),’’ he said. “But seems like I am playing for 100 years. . .You don’t have the chance to stop, never. I think for that situation, we have a shorter career.’’
Nadal complained that with so many tournaments and so much travel, he doesn’t have time to work on his game.
Some people wondered if Nadal was playing possum. He has the tendency to say that Federer is the best, or that Nadal is not favored. I don’t think he was bluffing; I think he was psyched out. Even in the final at Madrid, when he lost to Djokovic, he seemed less concerned with losing that match than with finding something that might work at Roland Garros.
“At the moment, I don’t think Rafa worries too much about anybody else but Novak, because he doesn’t have an answer for him,’’ doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic told Sports Illustrated. “Even though he’s playing against different opponents, he’s always working on the way he should play against Novak.’’
Before Wednesday, Nadal hadn’t faced a top opponent at the French. Other than his first-round match against John Isner, when he fell behind two sets to one, Nadal has not been pushed.
He has looked like a kid worried about diving off the high board for the first time. Standing there, standing there, standing there and thinking about it, worrying. You just want to put your foot into his backside and push him in.
That’s what happened Wednesday. Nadal was forced to sink or swim. He was pushed into the pool. That didn’t leave him time to worry. He was forced to stop thinking about Djokovic.
He now has won 14 straight sets. But his shots have been erratic, his killer instinct lacking and he even seemed to have lost speed.
“I had the feeling I was really covering the court much better,’’ he said after beating Soderling, “and I was able to run a lot better than recent matches.’’
That was a huge difference. Nadal had not been running down everything the way he used to. With his history of knee trouble, I wondered, honestly, whether years of pounding on the courts was slowing him down.
On Wednesday, he suddenly was confident again, moving again, crushing forehand winners off his shoetops on the full run. Again. But while Nadal was Nadal, he still wasn’t at his absolute best.
For the first time this tournament, though, he looked as if he might be ready for the fight. . .against Djokovic. Of course, they both have to get past one more match. Nadal described the Djokovic-Federer match as “The best player in the world today against the best player in history.’’
Funny, that’s how I would have described Nadal standing on the court by himself. But he’s going to have to believe, too.