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Self-doubt plagues Nadal again

Spring, usually the season of dreams fulfilled for Rafael Nadal, is rapidly turning into his winter of discontent. On Thursday in Barcelona, Nadal squandered what confidence he earned last week at the ATP Monte Carlo Masters in a dismal two-hour, straight-sets loss to No. 30 Fabio Fognini -- the Italian's second win against Nadal this season.

This time, the score was 6-4, 7-6 (6). Nadal served for the second set with a break in hand on three occasions and failed to hold each time. Fognini struck 34 winners to just 17 by Nadal. The good news for Nadal was that he had 14 break points; the bad news is that he converted just three (Fognini was 4-for-8).

For Nadal, the worst-case scenario continues to unfold. The King of Clay is now looking more like the Prince of Denmark. Otherwise known as Hamlet.

This isn't a frivolous analogy, because the signature element in Nadal's recent woes appears to be self-doubt. He talked about his lack of confidence weeks ago, and there also in his defiant prediction that whatever his problem, he was going to solve it. It was there in the way he talked about how he lost matches, and why. It appears to have been there in his decision to change rackets. And self-doubt was evident everywhere you looked in his game in recent matches, including the one against Fognini.

To be or not to be? Indeed.

Of course, fellows like Fognini, No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Fernando Verdasco, Milos Raonic, Tomas Berdych and Michael Berrer -- the men who have beaten Nadal this year -- have been causes as well as beneficiaries of Nadal's confused state. Djokovic certainly is the equal of Nadal on any given day. But what we've witnessed in recent weeks is the spectacle of a man willing to take the bitter medicine required to cure him -- only to find his condition worsening. Where, you have to wonder, does this end?

Good question. It's a lot easier to turn and look back.

Let's start with some controversial remarks made to reporters by Patrick Mouratoglou a few weeks ago, before Nadal moved from the frying pan into the fire. Mouratoglou, who is Serena Williams' coach, expressed surprise at how openly Nadal spoke of his confidence deficit. But Mouratoglou also suggested that the behavior was consistent with the way the Nadal camp has always worked extra hard to make him appear the underdog, often by lavishing praise on his rivals.

"It could be a strategy or a way to exorcise pressure," Mouratoglou said of Nadal's admissions. "Or maybe it's part of their personality to be so transparent."

If it was transparency, Mouratoglou cautioned, Nadal and company may have been giving away too much, for it would certainly embolden Nadal's rivals. "For some years there wasn't a player who thought he could beat him on clay; they all went on the court already defeated," Mouratoglou said. The words that followed have a prophetic ring: "Now things are sure to change."

Nadal's own sense that the ground was breaking up under his feet probably goes back further than his failures during the U.S. hard-court Masters swing. How else can you account for Nadal's decision to change rackets in the quest for more power and spin? Perhaps I'm missing something here, but Nadal appears to need more power like Wimbledon needs more ivy. He's one of the strongest guys in tennis, and he's still just 28. When it comes to spin, what was he thinking -- that he could make the ball bounce, unplayable, over the head of Djokovic?

Perhaps this sudden need for a new racket (his old Babolat was already considered explosive) was really a precipitous wish by Nadal to gain some advantage he may need in his mind more than in his strokes. Whatever the case, the experiment not only isn't working out, it now may be making things worse.

There's still plenty of clay-court tennis left before Nadal faces his true moment of reckoning at Roland Garros. But the kinds of comments that a few weeks ago were distinctive for their honesty and realism now smack of rationalization and mild delusion.

After taking that 6-3, 6-3 semifinal loss to Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Nadal noted that he was able to "play at the right level for moments" against the "best player in the world." He added: "But I get a little bit tired. ... If I'm able to play like the beginning for three hours, I can do it. Then it's a different story."

When was the last time Nadal played the fatigue card? Sure, that semi was Nadal's third three-set match in as many days. But then these were the same two guys who played a 5-hour, 53-minute Australian Open final on hard courts in the 2012, a match Djokovic won. Trying to sum up the 98-minute loss in Monte Carlo, Nadal also said: "It was 6-3, 6-3, but it can be much closer. I know that. I think he knows that, too. Everybody knows that."

Beware any sentence that begins: "Everybody knows . . . "

Still, the observation is valid -- up to a point. But it's also defensive in a way to which we're just not accustomed when dealing with Nadal. He may be a realist, but he's also proud, and perhaps the lesson here is that his pride hasn't had much voice lately.

"He's no doubt the best player that ever played the game on this surface," Djokovic said after the Monte Carlo match. "[So] you got to use the opportunities. You have to be able to step in. This is the only way I was going to win against him -- to be aggressive and play my style of the game. I was aware of that."

Nadal's dilemma at the moment is that Djokovic is not the only one aware of that. Others, like Fognini, are as well. And, as Mouratoglou predicted, they're happier than ever to step in and take their chances.