Rafael Nadal survived the first three rounds of the 2013 French Open, which is good since it means he's still alive at his first Grand Slam since injuring his knee in the summer of 2012. And so long as Rafael Nadal is alive in a tournament, especially this tournament, he's got a realistic-to-good chance of winning it.
But there's something different about his performance this year, something foreboding, something that suggests he won't hoist the trophy come June, 9th. There's something inherently wrong with his game.
Nadal is royalty at Roland Garros, a seven-time winner of the French Open and the most prolific clay-court player in tennis history.
His seven titles are the most in the Open Era, according to the Roland Garros official website, one more than Swedish legend Bjorn Borg and more than anyone ever besides Max Decugis, who won eight between 1903 and 1914.
If not for Roger Federer's anomalous triumph in 2009, the missing link between Nadal's victories, Rafa wouldn't just be a seven-time French Open champion...he'd be a seven-time defending French Open champion.
Expectations were tempered for a while because of his rehabilitation, but Nadal's post-injury form has been exquisite.
He made the final of his first tournament back, the VTR Open, without dropping a single set, a performance so good that even an upset in the final couldn't devalue it. He won his next two tournaments—the Brasil Open and Abierto Mexicano Telcel—outright, including a 6-0, 6-2 drubbing of World No. 4 David Ferrer in the final of the latter.
Three months, three tournament titles and one hardcourt victory over Roger Federer later, Nadal's tempered expectations were a thing of the past. He was gonna come to Roland Garros in peak form, like usual, navigate the field with ease, like usual, and hoist the trophy above his head, like usual.
Except for not. He's navigated the field so far, sure, but he's done so with anything but ease. Check out Rafa's GAMES LOST in the first three rounds this week, as compared with his performance in other championship years:
|Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Rounds 1-3|
Two things to notice here. First, foremost and most flagrant, Nadal has never won a French Open after ceding this many games through three rounds. He came relatively close in 2011 and 2006, but his struggles are far more pronounced in 2013.
Perhaps more tellingly, though, is the consistency of Rafa's current struggles. 2011's numbers are slightly skewed by a five-set match with John Isner where Nadal lost 24 games. He struggled mildly again in Round 2, but then flashed his dominant form with a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 whooping of Antonio Veic.
The same can be said of 2006, the only other year where Nadal lost over 30 games in the first three rounds. A close, four-set duel with Paul-Henri Mathieu skews the total up to 34, but Rafa at least had a couple dominant matches.
Here in 2013, however, Nadal has yet to dominate an opponent. No insanely close match distorts the numbers and compromises their integrity. He's lost an average of 16 games in his three opening matches, but no match falls more than three games away from that mean. He's been consistently inconsistent.
Which makes it feel more and more like Nadal is at risk for a letdown at this year's French Open. Maybe not tomorrow and maybe not the next day, but some time before (or during) the final match. It's not like a major letdown after other post-injury success would be without precedent. If not in tennis, then definitely in its oft-compared sister sport, golf.
Look no further than Tiger Woods' current drought, a harrowing antecedent for what we're seeing from Nadal. After his U.S. Open triumph in 2008, Woods had major knee surgery and hasn't won a major tournament since.
Sure, unlike Rafa, Woods had some "extracurricular" distractions to tend to, but the redolence is still eerie. Tiger has been dominant in regular-season play this year...but he can't get over the hump when it matters.
It's definitely too early to say Nadal has the same post-injury mental block as Tiger. After all, he is technically undefeated, 3-0, in Grand Slam matches since returning to play. But the signs of a nascent struggle are there, and we'd be remiss—nay, in genuine denial—if we refused to at least acknowledge them.