FRENCH OPEN: Rafael Nadal Thrown Into the Pool, Beats Robin Soderling, Becomes Nadal Again

Rafael Nadal celebrates Wednesday at French Open

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.’’

The pressure has been getting to Nadal, mostly from Djokovic, who is trying to take Nadal’s tournament and also his No. 1 ranking. Nadal also needs one more title to catch Bjorn Borg’s six French Opens. If that pressure wasn’t enough, he also has been trying to adapt to the French’s new Babolat tennis ball. It is harder and flies faster than other balls, and Nadal has had trouble controlling it with his heavy topspin.

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.

About gregcouch

I can talk tennis all day long, and often do. And yet some of the people I talk to about it might rather I talk about something else. Or with someone else. That’s how it is with tennis, right? Sort of an addiction. Sort of a high. I am a national columnist at FoxSports.com and a FoxSports1 TV insider, and have been a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. In 2010, I was the only American sports writer to cover the full two weeks of all four majors, and also to cover each of the U.S. Masters series events. I’ve seen a lot of tennis, talked with a lot of players, coaches, agents. I watched from a few rows behind the line judge as Serena rolled her foot onto the baseline for the footfault, a good call, at the 2009 U.S. Open. I sat forever watching a John Isner marathon, leaving for Wimbledon village to watch an England World Cup soccer game at a pub and then returning for hours of Isner, sitting a few feet from his wrecked coach. I got to see Novak Djokovic and Robin Soderling joke around on a practice court on the middle Sunday at Wimbledon, placing a small wager on a tiebreaker. Djokovic won, and Soderling pulled a bill out of his wallet, crumpled it into his fist and threw it at Djokovic, who unwadded it, kissed it, and told me, “My work is done here.’’ And when Rafael Nadal won the French Open in 2010, I finished my column, walked back out onto the court, and filled an empty tic tac container with the red clay. I’m looking at it right now. Well, I don’t always see the game the same way others do. I can be hard on tennis, particularly on the characters in suits running it. Tennis has no less scandal and dirt than any other game. Yet somehow, it seems to be covered up, usually from an incredible web of conflicts of interest. I promise to always tell the truth as I see it. Of course, I would appreciate it if you’d let me know when I’m wrong. I love sports arguments and hope to be in a few of them with you here. Personal info: One-handed backhand, serve-and-volleyer. View all posts by gregcouch

3 responses to “FRENCH OPEN: Rafael Nadal Thrown Into the Pool, Beats Robin Soderling, Becomes Nadal Again

  • kyle hoegh

    A Nadal Djoker finals would be epic. I already can’t wait. Fed might have something to say about it though. Nonetheless, if two players going for their 10th and 17th grand slams and competing for best ever status “ruins” the dream matchup we know we are in a great place.

  • John

    Greg. Why don’t you name this blog Rafa Nadal’s unofficial blog? Rafa will lose in the final and I sure as heck want to see you come here and pretend it was the balls, his uncle, the racket, or an injury. I have never seen a more biased person covering this sport than you

  • Kyle Hoegh

    If Greg Couch was biased towards Rafa he wouldn’t have written this article (which I disagree with): http://www.aolnews.com/2010/09/30/its-time-to-stop-rafael-nadals-cheating/

    Anyway, I don’t think you can question a writers bias towards a player based on writing positive things about him when he has won 3 of the last 4 majors at a tournament that he has won 5 of the last 6, right?

    I’m guessing you were calling journalists biased towards rafa 3 years ago if anybody dared to call Rafa great on all surfaces while you were trying to pigeon hole him as a clay-court specialist.

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