Rafael Nadal Edges Novak Djokovic as Champion Elect for Roland Garros Title

Devil in a New DressSenior Writer IMay 25, 2013

May 19, 2013; Rome, ITALY; Rafael Nadal (ESP) during his match against Roger Federer (SUI) in the men's final of the Rome Open at Foro Italico.  Mandatory Credit: Nicolas Luttiau/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports
Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

It was only in the middle of February earlier this year when Rafael Nadal made his tentative, oft-postponed return to tennis after seven months out with injury.

Through his absence, conspiracy theories and rumors of all sorts spread about his absence from the sport.

Had the ATP suspended him on a drug charge? Were his knees even as bad as they were being made out to be? Were they worse?

The one abiding truth that we could all believe in was that Nadal, whose last act on the tennis court was picking up the thrown racket of his conqueror Lukas Rosol off the floor, would come back with all his virtues of dignity, circumspection both in victory and defeat and respect wholly intact.

Six titles in eight tournaments later, Nadal has inched his way back from the edges of our psyche to the forefront of our consciousness.

Regardless, the Spaniard still has his wits about him. Where Novak Djokovic talks and talks of the Roland Garros title being the number one goal of his year and his season, Nadal knows to pace himself and to look at the bigger picture. He is just pleased that he's back healthy and playing tennis.

Asked in Rome if entering Roland Garros as the fifth seed (and having to potentially play three of the top four players to win the title) would be a problem, Nadal answered:

The draws are tough and if you are fifth then you can have tougher draws but being 7 months out of the competition and still being number 5 is a miracle and I had a very good chance to be number 10 and there are lots of chances to be worse and I accept the situation [....] if I am fourth or fifth or sixth it is no difference. The important thing is to be healthy and play well.

Nadal eventually won the Rome title, defeating Roger Federer in the final, and in so doing ensured he would be ranked as one of the top four seeds. Not so long after, his seeding would go on to improve even more as Andy Murray pulled out of the tournament citing injury.

So entering the draw as the No. 3 seed was certainly better than entering it as the No. 5, that is, up until he was drawn as a potential opponent for Djokovic in the semifinal stage.

Speaking about what is driving him to win at Roland Garros, Djokovic explained: "I know that if I win this tournament it's going to be a part of history. I would be very honoured to be part of that small, small group of players that managed to win all four Grand Slams."

Nadal, on the other hand, whose place in tennis is already sealed, isn't faced with such existential worries. We know that Djokovic knows that Nadal knows he is the one guy who can beat him.

I was talking recently to an old tennis comrade, and he expounded on that: "And the problem is recursive as Nadal knows he knows Nadal knows he is the one guy who can beat him."

Where Nadal edges Djokovic, however, is that he is just driven to be the better player on the day. Nadal believes the rest will take care of itself.

Speaking to the media following a close match against Ernests Gulbis in Rome, Nadal gave an insight into his way of thinking.

Tennis is not like football where you score a goal and you stay back and you can win the match. If you hit as hard as you can and hit every ball at 216 or 220 and then that means being the best player then perhaps he [Gulbis] was the best player.

For me the best player is to try and find solutions against the other player and when I served for the second set and I lost and also in the third and I still was fighting and I found solutions so the best player won. Gulbis is a fantastic player [but] he needs to pace himself a little more.

Novak Djokovic is a fantastic player, but he needs to pace himself a little more.