Measuring by any yardstick except his own, Rafael Nadal is having a fine French Open. After struggling with the big serve of John Isner in the first round, the five-time tournament champion hasn't dropped a set at Roland Garros and enters Wednesday's quarterfinal against Robin Soderling as the favorite to hoist the trophy on Sunday afternoon.
To listen to Nadal though, you'd think he was struggling through a Grand Slam like he was Caroline Wozniacki. His press conference after Monday's win over Ivan Ljubicic, which he won 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, was a study of pained introspection. It sounded like one of those old Stuart Smalley sketches from SNL. Nadal doubted his abilities and wondered if he had the game to win the tournament this year, thus causing some to wonder whether Nadal has truly been shaken by the rise of Novak Djokovic and his own "struggles" on clay.
A few of the choicest quotes:
• "Win this tournament again? No, seriously, I am not confident. I am not playing enough well to win this tournament at the day of today. That's the truth. The thing is, you have to be realist and today I'm not playing enough well to win this tournament. We will see after tomorrow if I ma ready to play at this level. I am 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."
• "I think for moments I am playing well, but for moments I am still having few mistakes in a row."
• "I have to hit the ball with a little bit more conviction."
• "This year, especially the second match was especially bad. First match wasn't that bad, in my opinion. Second match was bad level. Third match was positive, I think, in my opinion. And today, for moments was fine."
• "I'm a bit tired. That's true. I'm a bit tired right now, frankly. But also, I feel good. I'm really happy. I have this desire to do things well. I would like to go through difficult moments and to overcome these obstacles. Sometimes things don't unravel the way you want them to develop, but sometimes it's necessary to go through these difficulties."
I'm not sold. This is what Rafa always does at press conferences. If Roger Federer delights in hearing how great he is and Andy Roddick is snarky and Andy Murray demonstrates that unique British sense of humor, then Nadal is the king of false modesty. Whether it's his humble nature or an attempt to keep his mind leveled during a Grand Slam (probably a combination of both), Nadal always plays down his accomplishments. He never talks about how great he is. Remember when he beat Federer in the '09 Australian Open final and still kissed Federer's ring during the press conference? He always does that. It's not Nadal's style to do otherwise.
Another quote from the press conference confirms this:
"It's going to be [a long year] if I have to have all the comparisons. In 2006 I think I didn't play well during all the tournament. In 2007, normal. 2008, I played fantastic, but I played fantastic especially quarterfinals, semifinals and final. 2009 I think I played terrible all the tournament. 2010, so-so, much better semifinals and finals than previous matches. Very so-so-, in my opinion, no?"
Ah, but let's go back to 2008, the year Nadal remembers as playing fantastic. Though he destroyed Roger Federer in the final, Rafa was still making excuses about his dominance:
"If I am playing my best tennis ever, [I'm] never going to win 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 against Roger Federer, no. For sure, it's impossible. He didn't play very well. Everybody knows that because [of] the result."
Nadal can now look back on 2008 and realize how great he was. At the time, he wouldn't admit it. Federer didn't play well in that final, but Nadal couldn't even bask in the glow of thoroughly dominating the greatest player of all time without deflecting some praise in another direction.
Don't fret about Nadal. He's fine and hardly in the existential crisis his press conferences may suggest. Maybe he wins his sixth title or maybe he loses for the second time ever at Roland Garros. One thing's for certain though: Whether he wins or loses in the coming days, he'll never think he played well enough.