Rafael Nadal: Why His Win over John Isner Suggests He Can't Win French Open

AndersCorrespondent IIIMay 25, 2011

PARIS, FRANCE - MAY 24:  Rafael Nadal (L) of Spain shakes hands at the net with John Isner of USA after their men's singles round one match on day three of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 24, 2011 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Today, we witnessed an unlikely five-setter. Everybody raised their eyebrows just a bit when super-sonic server John Isner's name appeared next to five-time champion Rafael Nadal's. But let's be honest: few suspected the tall, lanky American would present a real challenge to Rafa on clay, the Spaniard's surface of choice and the American's worst. 

In the end, Rafa raised his level, minimized the errors and prevailed 6-4 6-7(2) 6-7(2) 6-2 6-4 in 4’01. 

No man has ever taken Rafa to five sets at Roland Garros.

And there were moments in the fifth, when Isner could have gotten Rafa's early break back. Not least at 30-all, when Rafa was serving for the match and the two ventured into a 30-stroke rally that Rafa eventually sealed with a perfect forehand up the line. 

What are we to take from the match? That Rafa is done, washed up and almost unable to beat a nobody on clay, who's not only poor on clay, but also is having a bad season in general? That he appeared nervous and risk-adverse as soon as Isner became a challenge? 

Or that he rose to the occasion, when it mattered, two-sets-to-one down, and will take great confidence in his victory?

Why not both?

Surely, the fact that he eventually prevailed and eventually started playing really well must give his confidence a much needed boost. All tennis players are confidence players, but few more so than Rafa. His entire post French Open 2009 was shattered not only due to his knee and abdominal troubles, but perhaps even more so because of the lack of confidence that followed.

At the World Tour Finals in London, he wasn't injured, yet failed to win a single set.

Winning a tight match like Isner might give him some confidence back, yet it may also enforce the doubts that Novak Djokovic has planted in his head. Why? Because the match shouldn't have gone to five sets in the first place.

John Isner, when serving well, is a frightening opponent. But the man came into the match with a 11-13 record for the season and a 4-6 record on clay (Davis Cup included). Does this look like a man who should take the king of clay to his first ever fifth set at Roland Garros? By no means.

Isner has lost those six clay matches to Juan Ignacio Chela (two times), Mardy Fish, Ricardo Mello, Ivo Karlovic and Paul Capdeville. In this process, he's won three out of eight tiebreaks, two of those three against World No. 165 Capdeville.

Yet against the best clay-courter ever to play the game, he won the two tiebreaks with ease.

It is no secret that Rafa does not enjoy playing big servers. He thrives on rhythm and they take that away from him. And as good a return game as he has, it is not that well suited for the best servers in the game, which is why a player like Andy Roddick has enjoyed relative success against Rafa.

Nevertheless, his fans should be very afraid after this match. He will take confidence from simply prevailing in a tight match. And it does not outright prevent him from winning the French (he did play a few close ones and Wimbledon last year, before winning in the end).

But it does give other players the believe that they're no longer playing the unbeatable clay king, but just another fellow tennis player. And as Novak Djokovic is evidence of this year, everything starts with belief. That said, I just can't see Pablo Andujar making it close against Rafa.

But what about his potential third round opponent Nikolai Davydenko? He leads Rafa 6-4 in their head-to-head, but is 0-3 on clay, though Davy almost won in Rome back in 2007.

The Russian won a small clay tournament in Munich, but has lost in the first round in both Rome and Madrid. However, if the court plays fast enough and Rafa can't find his best game, the Russian has what it takes to give Rafa more food for thought.

He doesn't have the biggest serve, but he takes the balls early, plays with a lot of pace and angles and attacks Rafa deep on both sides. It has proved a 6-1 winning formula on hard court, but can it work on clay?

You wouldn't have thought so a few weeks back, but with Rafa having lost eight sets and two matches already this clay season (opposed to zero sets in 2010), it really has become a much more uncertain and unpredictable ball-game. 

Prior to the tournament, I ended up having Djokovic as a co-favourite with Rafa and a favourite if they were to meet. After today's match, I think the tournament is Djokovic's to lose.

Djokovic does have a hard third round on his own against Juan Martin Del Potro, but potential opponents to Rafa in the coming rounds like Davydenko, Ljubicic/Verdasco, Robin Söderling and Andy Murray must all have taken note of just how close the odds-on favourite came to defeat to a player who's not exactly known for his clay-court prowess.

Isner and Djokovic have given them the believe and with that believe, the first two sets are no longer lost before they enter the court.

Rafa can still win the tournament, but what used to be the safest bet in tennis increasingly seems like anything but.