Alarm bells rang when Rafael Nadal lost the first set of his Roland Garros 2013 campaign to an anonymous opponent. They rang out again, more loudly, when he lost the first set again in the second round to someone scarcely better known.
Although Nadal had displayed sparkling form throughout this clay season, one loss to Novak Djokovic aside, many who watched began to wonder. Did he remain the favorite to win an eighth title at Roland Garros, or did disappointment lie ahead for Rafa?
Perhaps it does. Certainly, the form that Nadal showed in the first week will not carry him past Djokovic in a blockbuster semifinal. But framing that first week in the context of similar episodes in his career suggests that the early struggles, far from harming him, might help him in the long-term.
Nadal has enjoyed plenty of dominant title runs in his career, most notably when he won Roland Garros in 2008 and 2010 without losing a set at either tournament. Several of his triumphs at majors have followed starts even more inauspicious than his first week here, however.
For example, Nadal trailed unseeded opponents Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner by two sets to one in the first week of Wimbledon 2010. Able to raise his game just enough to survive, he soared to a higher level the rest of the way and lost just one more set in four matches.
Nadal's 2010 performance did not mark the first time that Nadal escaped a premature exit and ultimately dazzled at a tournament’s climax.
Three years before, he sank into a two-set hole against Mikhail Youzhny in the fourth round of Wimbledon. The 2007 version of Nadal lacked the full set of grass skills that he later developed, but he stood firm with his back against the wall to pull off the comeback. On the next Sunday, he dueled with Roger Federer in a classic five-set final, narrowly falling short of the Wimbledon title.
The thought of Nadal on clay calls to mind an image of flawless brilliance. Even at the major forever associated with him, though, the King of Clay has encountered early trouble before.
At Roland Garros 2011, Nadal drew American giant John Isner in the first round. The underdog won two of the first three sets from a reeling Rafa as murmurs of a massive upset mounted. Able to weather the storm with some dogged retrieving, Nadal would lose one more set in the rest of the tournament.
The less predictable rhythms of Nadal’s comeback in 2013 from an extended absence have deepened this pattern, extending it to smaller tournaments.
In the second tournament of his return, he trailed Argentine journeyman Carlos Berlocq by a set and later by a break in the third set. Nadal looked thoroughly uneasy with the conditions and the balls, but he found a way to survive. After a stellar performance in the final, Sao Paulo became the site of the first of his ATP-leading six titles this year.
At Masters 1000 tournaments in both Indian Wells and Rome, late-week surges of form followed edgy three-setters against Ernests Gulbis.
This dangerous Latvian shot-maker, who has returned to relevance this year, appeared to catch Nadal off guard with the sheer weight and depth of his strokes. Dropping the first set in both matches, the Spaniard forced himself to kick his game into a higher gear earlier in the tournament than he might otherwise.
The results were sensational. Nadal won his first hard-court title since 2010 at Indian Wells, defeating occasional hard-court nemesis in Del Potro in a tightly contested final. Rome witnessed one of his most resounding victories over Federer in the history of their rivalry. We’ll never know, but it seems plausible to suspect that the scares against Gulbis lit a fire under Nadal that blazed past the rest of the opposition.
In Paris, Nadal already has started to turn around his tournament one match at a time. Starting the second week against Kei Nishikori, he delivered his most complete effort, so far, in a comfortable victory. That possible semifinal against Djokovic will still pose a formidable test if it does happen. For now, though, Nadal and his fans can breathe easy.
The early tests that the seven-time Roland Garros champion has survived might have sharpened his will and heightened his resolve even more to capture his eighth title at the 2013 French Open.