Rafael Nadal a victim of his own great success

On a sunny May afternoon in Madrid, for a few flickering moments, Rafael Nadal actually looked like, well, Nadal.

In the very first game against Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals, Nadal pressed the Bulgarian's serve and earned two break points. Neither was cashed, but clearly Rafa was engaged. In the second game, he ripped a forehand winner down the line and flashed a clenched fist. In the third game, after sprinting from alley to alley, Nadal hit a spectacular, backhand, cross-court winner from 6 feet behind the baseline. Dimitrov barely moved as Rafa unleashed an almost scary, guttural growl: Urrrghghghgh!

He reached the final but was oddly listless in a straight-sets loss to Andy Murray.

And then there was his curious performance in Rome. Nadal seemed to have the match under control when he won six of the first eight points in a first-set tiebreaker. But Stan Wawrinka, fighting off four set points, rallied in improbable fashion.

"I didn't have enough leg in some moments," Nadal told the media afterward. "He played crazy. He hit amazing shots in a lot of moments, and especially important ones."

Last year, Nadal's issues were largely physical. He had a pretty fair first half of the 2014 season, winning four tournaments, including his ninth at Roland Garros in appearances. Moreover, it was his 14th career Grand Slam singles title, tying him with Sampras and leaving him only three behind Federer. The effort, however, left him physically spent. After losing to Australian teenager Nick Kyrgios (ranked No. 144) in the fourth round at Wimbledon, he missed nearly three months with a right wrist injury. He played only three tournaments the rest of the year and lost three of seven matches, the last to a 17-year-old named Borna Coric.

This season, the consensus -- with confirmation from Rafa himself -- is that they've been mostly mental.

Nadal told reporters his performance was "a disaster" last month in Barcelona, after losing to Fabio Fognini in the third round for the second time this year. "My forehand has been my biggest virtue. But today my forehand was vulgar; it wasn't a forehand worthy of my ranking and career."

According to ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert, who also coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Murray, Nadal has lost his aura of invincibility.

"When you're playing from strength, guys are just hoping not to get killed, hoping to just be a factor," Gilbert said from his home in northern California. "He's said he's struggling mentally, which top athletes never do, and has had a tough time closing out matches. Fognini beats him a couple of times and all of a sudden guys aren't losing to him before they come out of the locker room. That's a big edge to lose."

Losing faith

Nadal's somewhat unorthodox forehand, as mighty a shot as there is in tennis, is also the window into his soul. When it's working, it is the emphatic byproduct of his confidence.

"It's been a very negative week," Nadal continued. "I thought I would be able to find consistency, but it hasn't happened. Until I sort out the ups and downs I'm suffering this season, I will continue to be vulnerable."

And that was exactly how he looked last week in Rome, going out against Stan Wawrinka in a straight-sets quarterfinal.

Rafa is an unfathomable 66-1 at the French Open, which starts Sunday, and is seeking an unprecedented 10th title, but for the first time in a decade, Nadal is not the favorite. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, whom he's beaten all six times they've met at Roland Garros, is. What's happened to Rafa, and why does he suddenly seem so at risk on his favorite court in the world?

"Rafa is someone who was born with confidence or learned it at a very early age," said Dr. Allen Fox, a sports psychologist who had an extensive tennis career -- he won the 1961 NCAA singles title, was a 1965 Wimbledon quarterfinalist and was a three-time member of U.S. Davis Cup team. "Tennis players who have that intrinsic confidence -- Pete Sampras, Chrissie Evert and Roger Federer are also examples -- tend to go through this. It happens to all of them.

"They lose a bit physically in their mid-20s, and so they'll put their foot down on the accelerator and they don't accelerate. Suddenly, they start to wonder and they revert to being like everybody else. Confidence comes from winning, and it tends to run in streaks. Rafa took some losses, and clearly it scared him."

The other kind of confidence, Fox explained, is acquired. Relatively late bloomers, such as Djokovic, Martina Navratilova and Ivan Lendl, are examples of players who only derived confidence from sustained results.

"I think Rafa is getting toward the acquired stage," Fox said. "Federer's already there. You can see him get nervous in the big moments now. Years ago, when the crunch was on, he came up with the goods. Now? It depends on the day.

"It's the same with Rafa. That forehand has been lethal, but now it's sometimes shaky. His backhand is actually more mechanically sound, but not nearly the weapon. Yet, there have been times when I've seen him run around his forehand to hit the more comfortable backhand."

Unprecedented success

It is impossible to overstate Nadal's dominance at Roland Garros.

The red dirt of Court Philippe Chatrier is the perfect surface for his relentlessly physical, grinding game. Think Lionel Messi on the familiar FC Barcelona pitch, or David "Big Papi" Ortiz in the friendly confines of Fenway Park. Nadal sprints through the dust, back and forth, forward and back, leaving gashes that underline his heavy, heavy game.

That 66-1 mark is unprecedented in the Open era. It's a staggering winning percentage of .985; it would be perfect but for a singular lapse against Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the 2009 tournament. On that day, Nadal battled emotional and physical issues -- and was beaten by a superior player.

The next-best record at a Slam? Why it's Bjorn Borg, the Smooth Swede who was 49-2 (.961) at Roland Garros, where he won six titles in a span of eight years. Even if Nadal were to lose in each of the next two finals -- strictly a theoretical assumption based on his recent play -- he'd have a record of 78-3, still percentage points ahead of Borg. Hard to believe, but those numbers are well ahead of Agassi and Djokovic's accomplishments in Australia and the records of Sampras and Federer at Wimbledon

There is another statistic you should be aware of regarding Rafa, perhaps the most telling of his many, many numbers. His record in best-of-five-sets record on clay, which includes 16 Davis Cup and seven ATP matches, in Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Rome and Stuttgart: 89-1 (.989).

Justin Gimelstob, currently the coach of the top-ranked American man, John Isner, and a Tennis Channel analyst, was one of a number of experts interviewed for this story who cautioned restraint before writing off Rafa as a Grand Slam champion.

"He's the most dominant player on any surface the sport has ever seen," Gimelstob recently said after a practice session with Isner. "It's completely beyond the realm of comprehension; it defies the small margins we always profess to see at the elite levels of sport. But this is what we see with so many great athletes. They start becoming victims of their great success. There seems to be an inevitability after injury that he'll return to No. 1 and win all his matches on clay. That's just not realistic.

"The fact that he looks vulnerable and human is actually a great compliment. He's not playing as freely and aggressively, as revealed in court position."

Mary Carillo, who will be calling matches in Paris for both NBC and Tennis Channel, wonders how the cumulative effect of Nadal's bruising style will affect the player who will turn 29 the second week of the French Open.

"It's not the years; it's the miles," said Carillo. "How much mileage does he have on those legs, considering the way he plays with that kind of effort? Yes, and the forehand is misbehaving and he was fooling around with a new racket because he's not used to not having confidence. He was looking for more spin, but as a result there was less control. Who's a bigger control freak than Rafa? I wasn't surprised when he went back to the old racket.

"We've seen the nerves with age in other athletes, like Federer and Tiger Woods, too. It's an emotional shock to the system when you can't perform like you're used to."