It's hard to not be subjective in something like this, but Rafael Nadal has lost a number of steps since he won at Roland Garros last year.
How could he not have?
Seven months out makes so much more of a difference in a competitive sport than people haven't often cared to admit over the last few weeks of Nadal's return—Tiger Woods after his 2009 hiatus is a prime example—but neither the expectation on Nadal nor the corollary predictions of his demise have let up.
Cries of "Daniel Brands and Martin Klizan took Nadal to four sets, and it took the seven-time French Open champion almost three hours to defeat Fabio Fognini—Nadal has been average!" have filled tennis blogs and websites, but an appreciation of the situation has scarecely surfaced.
What is Nadal's "averageness" but a snowball culmination of a series of unfortunate events!
The drab weather conditions in Paris for one, the heaviness of the courts, the piss-poor scheduling and, of course, the travails that come with the territory and success he has had, including the hate some of the French fans have directed his way because of it.
As Strong as Ever
The last point I believe is particularly pertinent in that like Lukas Rosol last year at Wimbledon, had Brands or Klizan beaten Nadal and gone on to face Fognini, you could make a very good case for them getting dumped out—and of course, the basis for that would primarily be their average talents.
However, these guys were brilliant against Nadal.
Why? How could it be?
The thing is: When players play against Nadal—great players in general—they see a target. They see a chance to make a memory to proudly tell their grandkids about. And so, they play out of their skins, almost as if their lives are on the line, and Nadal seems average for it.
But in reality—and this is where in my view, objective judgement of Nadal's form becomes extremely difficult—when everyone Nadal plays is playing outside of themselves, of course Nadal will look average if he doesn't follow suit.
Faced with the new status quo made possible by the game plans employed against him by the likes of Novak Djokovic, Robin Soderling and John Isner in the past on clay, Nadal now faces a whole different battle on the tennis court as compared to any he has ever faced during his seven triumphs at Roland Garros.
It is a sheer feat of greatness that Nadal continues to keep himself relevant and continues to remain a contender. That takes a certain kind of strength.
Not the type that that gets medals pinned to your lapel for hitting a ball with a bat, but the type that gets one through a professional's existential crisis without diminishing the drive for more or creating a fear for the unknown.
That he has come this far, when most would crumble under the weight, shows why he is as strong—stronger perhaps—than ever.
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