Posted: Tuesday May 31, 2011 7:18PM ; Updated: Thursday June 2, 2011 10:41AM
S.L. Price
S.L. Price>INSIDE TENNIS

French Open king Nadal feeling his age as his dominance starts to fade

Story Highlights

Rafael Nadal, the most dominant force in French Open history, is in serious trouble

Nadal steps over the Borg line June 3, the 25th birthday marking decline for many

Nadal, who is 36-6 this year, faces Robin Soderling in the quarterfinals Wednesday

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Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal will lose his No. 1 ranking if Novak Djokovic wins his next match.
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2011 French Open
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PARIS -- You don't come to France these days thinking radical change. The heart of Paris is a museum piece, valued beyond measure for its old buildings and monuments and feel.

High-level politics? A shop closed, essentially, to women and minorities.

Sports? It's no shock that, when faced with the dramatic choice of relocating the French Open near Versailles or -- Quelle horreur! -- Disneyland Paris, the French Tennis Federation decided last February to stay put near Porte d'Auteuil -- and even less a stunner that the FTF tries to sell this as a bold move.

"It was brave, it was innovating, and it was against the general trend to jumbo-ization that we witness today," said FTF president Jean Gachassin on the eve of the 2011 French Open. "We made the choice of excellence. We made the choice of building up on our assets, our charm, our specificities that the whole world is envying us."

Yes, the proverb, "The more things change, the more they stay the same" -- not to mention, perhaps, the pose of smug self-regard -- emerged first from a French mind. Come 2016, there will be a new roof on Court Philippe Chatrier, a new showcourt, the erasure of that wondrous antique of a bullring, Court No. 1, and night tennis at Roland Garros. The 21st century, at last, will be allowed to dawn.

Still, tennis Jacobins -- those revolutionaries who relish the bloody upset, the demise of the ruling class -- shouldn't despair. In ways thought impossible just a month ago, tumult is abrew at Roland Garros. The clay king, the most dominant force in French Open history, is in serious trouble. Rafael Nadal is feeling old.

"I have almost 25 (years)," Nadal said. "But seems like I am playing for 100 years."

That Nadal said this after a third-round match that he won in straights, 6-0 in the third, at a tournament where he now holds a 43-1 record, is remarkable enough. That he said it during a joyless, wide-ranging press conference in which he bemoaned the length -- what Maria Sharapova calls the "hamster carousel" -- of the tennis season, his lack of time to craft his game, his despair of anything ever changing, made last year's winner of Wimbledon and the French and U.S. Opens sound suspiciously like a man on the verge of burnout. Indeed, on June 3 Nadal will step over the Borg line, the 25th birthday that has marked the start of decline for many a Grand Slam champion. "You don't have the chance to stop, never," Nadal said. "I think for that situation we have a shorter career."

Such feelings are usually reserved for those nearing the end of things, and in normal circumstances it might be smart to dismiss Nadal's gripes as the one-off potshots of a man just itching to complain. Except that two days later, after disposing of Ivan Ljubicic, Nadal seemed even lower.

"Win this tournament again? No, seriously, I am not confident," he said Monday. "I am not playing enough well to win this tournament today. That's the true. You have to be a realist, and today I'm not playing enough well to win this tournament. We'll see after tomorrow if I am ready to play at this level. I going to try. But I won four times already here, five times already here. I don't have an obligation to win six. I going to try for sure, but ... "

From most, that would be some serious sandbagging. But Nadal has never engaged in such pettiness; he is, on court and off, one of the most guileless greats the game has ever produced. The fact is, in the first round John Isner pushed him to five sets, the first time Nadal had to go the distance here. And though his serve has been broken more in previous years, Nadal has never looked shakier during his service games than at this year's Roland Garros. Twice he broke Ljubicic -- the second at 3-1 in the third -- and twice he sprayed clearly anxious shots and squandered the advantage away. Last year, Nadal's beefed-up serve had been the final piece of his hardcourt puzzle. Back on clay, where Roland Garros' new lighter, harder balls would seem to help him, Nadal's serve has yet to be the weapon it was.

"That's true about the stress," he said. "When you want to do something and then you realize you can't do it, or what happens is not what you had foreseen because there's too much stress and therefore you're not consistent enough, yes, then this might happen..Sometimes it's ups and down. It's the rollercoaster."

Just then, while Nadal was navigating the mental rails, his uncle and coach, Toni Nadal, sat two stories below in the players restaurant voicing a similar lack of faith.

"No, no, no, no. No. No. NO," Toni said, when asked if he felt confident about Rafa's chances to win the tournament. "He's playing not too good, he's not consistent. Sometimes it comes back and then he makes mistakes. Altogether, he's not too strong. Confidence, he has some problems. His feel is not too good. I wish it was all a little better."

The outlooked appeared brighter on Wednesday as Nadal took out Robin Soderling, the Swedish slingshot responsible for that one blot on his Paris record, in a 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 victory. Said Nadal, afterward: "I said two days ago 'I am not playing good enough to win Roland Garros. We will see in two days.' That's what I said. And today I played better. Much better, in my opinion."

All of this, of course, is carnage left in the wake of Novak Djokovic's remarkable spring. The numbers are stunning; Djokovic has crushed every opponent, won 43 straight matches, beaten Nadal four times -- twice on clay -- and Roger Federer three. Another win over the Swiss master Friday will hand the Serb his lifetime dream, the No. 1 ranking. But, truly, nothing says more about his run than the impact it has had on Nadal. Since 2005 no one -- certainly not Federer -- had ever been able to crack that implacable will; Nadal hurtled through the men's game like pigiron launched from a cannon. Anything he set his mind to -- Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, a Davis Cup title, Olympic gold -- seemed possible. He might lose, but only in 2009, when injury and his parents' divorce diverted his focus, did he waver. Tennis is a dance, a pummeling between partners, impossible alone. But with a healthy Nadal, the opponent almost didn't matter.

Nadal is healthy now. He's gone 37-6 this year, with early-year losses against Nikolay Davydenko and David Ferrer, followed by the four straight to Djokovic that revealed a new uncertainty, an unprecedented brittleness seen by peers in the lockerroom, and even in his wins over others.

"At the moment I don't think Rafa worries too much about anybody else but Novak, because he doesn't have an answer for him," says Serbian doubles specialist Nenad Zimonjic. "Even though he's playing against different opponents, he's always working on the way he should play against Novak. That's what changes, maybe, the way he's playing."

Still, the mark of a strong king is the fact that no one dares predict his demise until they see the prone body. Soderling will be a serious test; he again has little to lose. Djokovic, meanwhile, has never beaten Nadal in a five-set match -- on any surface, much less clay. Beating him in Paris figures to be a monumental climb; no one would be surprised to see the monarchy survive one more year. But after that? The damage has been done. It's now just a matter of time.

 
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