Despite season-long woes, Nadal remains confident

The ESPN.com tennis team is on the ground in Paris. As part of our wall-to-wall coverage, there will be a daily look at the intense rivalry between No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic and nine-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal. This potential collision represents the dominant storyline of the year's second Grand Slam tournament. Here is the first installment.

PARIS -- Rafael Nadal has won nine French Open titles, going a staggering 66-1 in his career at Roland Garros. He will try to win an unprecedented 10th title here, but for the first time in a decade, he is not the favorite. In fact, because of an injury-wracked second half last year and inconsistent performance this season, Nadal finds himself the sixth seed here. He also enters Roland Garros having lost five times on clay this year.

"It's not terrible, but if we compare with other years, it obviously looks bad, no?'' Nadal said in his news conference Friday. "That's always going to happen when you achieve a lot in the past. There are always going to have the comparisons. My feelings are good. 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 a tough second half of the year last year. And since January, day after day, I think I've improved a lot. I'm having less bad days than in the first few months. I am a little bit more consistent.''

Novak Djokovic, looking for his first French Open title, is the top seed and could face Nadal -- for the 44th time in their careers -- in the quarterfinals.

"He was not playing up to his standard this year compared to the last eight or nine years,'' Djokovic said. "He has always had a big title on clay coming into Roland Garros. It wasn't the case this year, so it is probably a bit different approach for him.

"But regardless of that, I think he still is playing his best tennis on clay courts in Paris.''

There has been much media speculation regarding Nadal's slump and the reasons for it, which some players see as overblown.

"It's actually been quite interesting for me to see and read about it -- everyone expects so much of Rafa at this time of the year,'' fellow 2014 French Open champ Maria Sharapova said. "An individual loses a few matches, but someone that's won this event nine times, to put so many question marks -- I almost think it's a little bit disrespectful.''

Andy Murray said he considers Djokovic the favorite but emphasizes that Nadal's record on Roland Garros clay is "ridiculous.''

"It would be stupid to write him off," Murray said. "Or to suggest that he can't win the event or won't win the event.''

Nadal is determined to show his strength here again.

"When I say I don't know what's going to happen, I really don't know what's going to happen,'' Nadal said. "That doesn't mean that I don't have confidence in 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.

"But seriously, my last couple of weeks have been much more positive than what the results said. ... So this is a court that I like. A tournament that I love. I am going try to put my game in a position that gives me the chance. If I am able to do it, I have enough experience here.''