By Kamakshi Tandon
Rafael Nadal has come into the French Open for years insisting that he should not be called the favorite. That he does not go into matches confident of victory. That he is only practicing hard, doing his best, looking to be competitive. And all the while, onlookers would dismiss his remarks and — usually correctly — all but hand him the trophy before the tournament even began.
Now, there is no need for Nadal to say any of this. He is not the favorite, not confident, just looking to stay competitive. Now is when he might want to sound circumspect. But he has done the opposite, dropping his usual modesty to assert his abilities and insist he is still the same player. It looks like the only way to get Nadal to be confident might be to lack confidence in him.
Having heard the Spaniard downplay his success for so long, it’s quite a change to hear him talking up his chances. But that is what the now No.7-ranked player now finds himself having to do. With just one minor title on clay and no trophies at the European events coming into the French Open, he has had to strike a different note than when he was on an unbeaten or almost unbeaten run. Instead of arguing he hasn’t been cruising, the 28-year-old now argues he hasn’t completely collapsed.
“Obviously, I didn’t have the best clay season the last couple of years. It’s obviously that I had more up and downs. Even like this I was able to play semifinals in Master 1000, another final, and one quarterfinals. It’s not terrible, but if we compare with other years, obviously looks bad, no?” he said before the tournament got underway. “That’s always gonna happen when you achieve a lot in the past. Always going to have the compar[is]ions, but that’s it. ”But seriously, my last couple of weeks have been much more positive than what the results said. Probably in Rome I was playing much better than the result was, no? So is a court that I like. Is a tournament that I love. I am going to try to put my game in a position that gonna give me the chance. If I am able to do it, I have enough experience here.”
While winning three Masters before the French Open never left him assured of being champion, winning none this time has not deterred him. “My feelings are good,” he said, suggesting he’s doing quite well for a player who started the seasion having barely played for six months because of injury and illness. “Obviously when you lose more than other years it’s obvious the confidence is a little bit less. But the positive thing is I started again in January after tough second half of the year last year. And since January, day after day, I think I improved a lot. I having less bad days than in the first few months. I am a little bit more consistent, I feel.”
Once, he would arrive at the French Open and say his first goal was to win the first round. This time, he will go as far as to aim to “try to play a great tournament here.”
“I think I can do it. Then do it is another thing. I’m going to try my best, and I think can happen,” he said.
Once, he would question himself. This time, he is encouraging himself. “When I say I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I really don’t know what’s gonna happen. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have confidence on myself to try to be ready for it. I have to think that I am ready for it. But I know sometimes that it’s tougher to be ready for it.”
And if nothing else, Nadal notes, he has already won a record nine titles at the tournament. “Obviously winning nine times here is difficult to equal,” casually mentions the all-time great, though he is not usually one to talk a lot about his impressive record of achievements.
The new, defiant Nadal doesn’t sound like the familiar, unassuming one, but the circumstances have changed more than he has. His position now is not that different from his position in previous years. Anything can happen, he would say. Anything can happen, he says now. Like many established champions before him, Nadal no longer has as firm a grip on victory, but it is still within his grasp.
One thing, though, has changed. Nadal might not be playing as well as before, but he’s talking a better game than he ever used to do.