If Novak Djokovic is in Rafael Nadal's head, he's presently at the back of his mind. "I have a goal right now," Nadal said, "and that's improve my tennis to be good enough to compete against him for next year. For this year, I don't have enough time to practice, but hopefully for next year, yes, I have to change and improve a few things, and that's what I'm going to try."
While Nadal's five straight losses to Djokovic have been the defining feature of his season, he currently has other worries. Plenty of them. He had to postpone his preparation for the hard-court season because of the foot injury he picked up at Wimbledon. His hopes of making up the time on court fizzled when he lost both his opening singles and doubles matches at the Rogers Cup in Montreal last week. He arrived in Cincinnati and burned two fingers handling a hot dish at a restaurant, and he has struggled to serve with the thick bandages wrapped over the blisters.
On Thursday, there was the wreck of a match against Fernando Verdasco, an up-and-down, back-and-forth contest filled with errors that Nadal barely scraped out 7-6(5), 6-7(4), 7-6(9) after leading 5-1 in the final-set tiebreak. Some physical niggles and rust aside, Nadal has wavered mentally during a few key moments in the past two weeks, harking back to his early-round struggles against Paolo Lorenzi (and the flu) at the Rome Masters and John Isner at the French Open. These trouble spots, coming in an otherwise consistent season, have been preceded by defeats to Djokovic in a tournament final.
Coincidence? Mostly, yes, but hangover effects are hardly unknown in a sport where victory often depends on small margins and mental superiority at critical moments. Nadal admitted that his loss in Montreal last week affected him when trying to serve out his opening match this week -- he was broken at 5-4 against Julien Benneteau. "The moments that I [spent] one week ago in Montreal when I lost the match serving for the match, always the confidence goes down a little bit after one match like that. That probably affected me a little bit today," he said, though he maintains that the losses to Djokovic have not altered anything. "I don't have a personal rivalry against Novak. I have a rivalry against everybody. ... I want to congratulate him, but for me the challenge is not different."
"It's maybe like a side train, you know, following what you're trying to do in the meantime," said Roger Federer, who has experienced at Nadal's hands what Nadal has been going through with Djokovic. "Sometimes these losses have nothing to do with what you're trying to accomplish on this very day. ... The Verdasco match has nothing really to do with Novak because, I mean, completely different player."
But Federer notes that he himself had been through losing streaks to players like David Nalbandian and Tim Henman and managed to turn those around before Nadal began getting the better of him. For Nadal, losing five in a row to one player is a new experience, even though he still leads Djokovic 16-12 in their overall meetings.
"I never really felt I had to panic, even though the head-to-head speaks in favor of Rafa," said Federer. "I think Rafa is a great champion. I don't think it's rattling him badly, [but it] should have some effect on him, because he doesn't have losing streaks against many players, or hasn't had, because he was such a good teenager, really."
Whatever the reason, Nadal clearly has more significant rebuilding to do in his game than in previous years leading up to the U.S. Open. He's happy to take any win, particularly one that confirms he can still fight through contests when not playing his best tennis.
"I need to spend hours on court. I would like to have one hour less than what I have, but [it] was positive," said Nadal of his three-hour, 38-minute win against Verdasco. "These kind of matches -- feel[ing] this pressure, finally winning one match like this when I had a few mistakes, when I had the match under control, even after I suffered a lot -- because the end of the match was very close and emotional for me.
"Probably this match will help me for -- I don't think for this tournament, but for the next one."
If he can win his next match, it may build some positive momentum before the U.S. Open, where he is defending champion. But his next match is against Mardy Fish early Friday afternoon in Cincinnati, no easy rebound. "I would love to play a little bit later tomorrow, no?" said Nadal. "I play at 1 [p.m] another time, with all the sun there. After today, more than probably five hours on court, is, for me, a little bit too early."
Add that to the list of challenges, which, increasingly, make facing Djokovic in the final at the end of this week sound like a nice problem to have.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.