Does anyone else get the feeling that in two weeks' time Rafael Nadal might be photographed biting that Coupe des Mousquetaires trophy again -- and we'll be left marveling at how he pulled off the greatest con in the history of tennis?
Think of it this way: Novak Djokovic has won five of his past six meetings against Nadal. The Serb has already logged more weeks at No. 1 (presently 148) than Nadal (141), who has fallen to No. 7 in the rankings. The only thing Djokovic lacks, which his seemingly demoralized rival has, is a French Open title.
This title is not just the only thing Nadal can still keep from Djokovic -- it's the one thing the 10-time French Open champ is most capable of keeping from his rival. But now Nadal is hurting -- really hurting and questioning himself. His confidence is damaged.
On the other hand, confidence is an emotion, nothing more. It isn't racket head speed, nor is it fast-twitch muscle energy or 5 mph on a serve. Perhaps you can't turn confidence on and off at will, but sometimes it doesn't take much to turn around and see the silver lining instead of the dark cloud.
Nadal is being challenged to do that this week at the French Open. It's the best possible place to jump-start his enthusiasm and self-regard, for it's the tournament he most cherishes, and despite some cosmetic similarities, it's an entirely different animal from those red-clay Masters events in Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, just as Nadal has always been a different animal from all those other clay-court heroes. Besides, does anyone really think Nadal needed to win a clay warm-up tournament in Europe to demonstrate that he's a contender in Paris?
Nadal has played a number of matches this year in which he's looked like the Rafa of yore. Nadal is healthy -- a critical and overlooked factor in this saga. The only time he lost at Roland Garros, in the fourth round of 2009, his knees were aching so badly that he was a no-show weeks later at Wimbledon, where he was the defending champion.
And then there's this: Nadal's struggles ensured that if he plays Djokovic, it will be in a quarterfinal. Six months ago, you would have said that all the pressure at this tournament would be on Nadal. Now the pressure will be on Djokovic. This is a major shift of paradigm.
Nadal was sounding pretty chipper the other day for a guy who's allegedly been down in the dumps. He told reporters:
"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 [Philippe Chatrier] is a court that I like. Is a tournament that I love. I am gonna 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."
We're back to that issue: confidence. In order to rediscover his A-game, Nadal needs to find and flip one little switch somewhere in his head. The one that says "confidence" on the little piece of masking tape underneath it. It should not be too difficult to locate now that he's at Roland Garros. And if he can't get inspired to find it there, if he can't work himself into a heroic mood on that buckskin colored clay, he's probably got a lot more to worry about than Novak Djokovic.