For the first time since he was 17 years old, Rafael Nadal will arrive at the wrought-iron gates of the All England Club without the self-confidence that comes from being the French Open champion -- or the title-holder at any of the Grand Slams. Stopped in the quarterfinals at Roland Garros by Novak Djokovic, Nadal's second-ever defeat at the tournament, the Majorcan enters the lawns of Wimbledon with an air of uncertainty. Though he won Stuttgart last week, Nadal then encountered some turbulence at last week's Aegon Championships at London's Queen's Club, where he was beaten in the opening round.
"With every defeat, you feel less confident," said Toni Nadal, Rafa's longtime coach. "It's a pity that Rafael hasn't had a very good year, and that he has had more defeats than ever and more defeats than is normal. That's our problem. Rafael's game isn't bad, it's just that he needs more confidence."
Although Toni suggested Nadal could be the champion at the All England Club this summer -- which would give him a third Wimbledon title -- he put him behind Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and perhaps even Stan Wawrinka in the list of contenders for the golden, pineapple-topped trophy. Much could depend, Toni said, of Rafa's draw; if the 14-time Slam champion makes it into the second week, such a run could give him more confidence in his grass-court game. Then "anything is possible."
In this newly extended grass-court season, with the period between the European Slams extended from two to three weeks, Nadal was the only one of the Big Four players to compete in the opening week of the swing. And his commitment was rewarded at the new grass-court tournament in Stuttgart, where he won for the first time in five years before falling at the Queen's Club.
"When Rafael played in Stuttgart, he beat some good players to win the title, and he made a good tournament," said Toni, who was promoting his nephew's academy, which is under construction in Majorca. "Before Rafael came here to London, I was thinking that his game is good. ... Rafael didn't play badly [at the Queen's Club], though he had some chances in the final set. But now he begins again and he tries again. I still think it's possible for him to make a good tournament at Wimbledon."
The last time Nadal played Wimbledon without the status of being the Roland Garros champion was 2003. (He didn't play in 2004 or 2009, which was the first time he experienced defeat in Paris.) The Wimbledon champion in 2008 and 2010, as well as the runner-up in 2006, 2007 and 2011, Nadal hasn't had the easiest of times at the All England Club in recent years.
After losing in the second round in 2012 to Lukas Rosol, which is regarded as one of the biggest upsets in the tournament's history, Nadal lost a round earlier in 2013 against Belgium's Steve Darcis. Last summer, Nadal was unseated by the insolence of youth, losing in the fourth round to Nick Kyrgios, with the young Australian even hitting a through-the-legs shot against the former champion on Centre Court.
Can Nadal put himself level with John McEnroe and Boris Becker with three Wimbledon titles?
"In the last few years, Rafael has had many problems with the knees when he has been playing at Wimbledon," Toni said. "It has been difficult for him to play at Wimbledon. Last year was a little different, and this year his knees are so much better. I believe he can win Wimbledon this year. For me, yes, that is possible, but it's true that he's not one of the biggest favorites.
"There are many favorites ahead of Rafael. But over five sets, Rafael has more possibilities, because a match doesn't run so fast as it did here at Queen's. A lot depends on the draw, and whether you are lucky. At Wimbledon, if you can make the second week, anything is possible."