Rafael Nadal: 5 Reasons His Early French Open Struggles Could Help Later on

Tom LoughreyAnalyst IIIMay 26, 2011

Rafael Nadal: 5 Reasons His Early French Open Struggles Could Help Later on

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    Rafael Nadal has had to fight through two tough matches in the opening rounds at the 2011 French Open at Roland Garros.

    Nadal was surprisingly pushed to a fifth set in the first round by American John Isner. He lost two tiebreakers in the match, both by the score, 7-2. If Isner's legs hadn't given out on him in the final two sets, it could have been an even bigger scare for Nadal.

    In the next round, it was fellow countryman Pablo Andujar who gave Nadal fits. Although Andujar wasn't able to win a set, he was close in each one. Two sets lasted over an hour, with the final set concluding in 92 long minutes and a narrow tiebreak triumph for Nadal.

    Nadal has never been this troubled in the early rounds of his favorite Grand Slam, usually posting multiple 6-0 sets in these rounds. In fact, the five-time French Open champion has seen two of his slams earned without dropping a set.

    In 2008, Nadal surrendered just 41 games in 21 sets on the clay. This year, Nadal has already lost 38 games in just two matches. His struggles have people questioning if he's still dominant on the surface, especially with two consecutive straight-set losses to Novak Djokovic on clay this year.

    Here are five reasons to see the silver lining in Nadal's challenges, and why he'll turn "struggle" into success.

1. Level of Competition Early

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    John Isner is currently No. 39 in the world. Pablo Andjuar sits at No. 48.

    The highest seeded player Nadal had previously taken on in the first round of the French Open was No. 50 Robin Soderling in 2006. Nadal was also a No. 2 seed at the time, with Roger Federer still at the top of the world.

    The best player Nadal has faced in the second round is either Xavier Malisse or Horacio Zeballos. Both players were ranked outside the top 40.

    Nadal usually sees the talent he saw in the first two rounds this year in the Round of 32. Also, the gap between No. 1 and No. 40 is much smaller than it has been in the past. Every player on the tour is an incredible athlete with very few weaknesses. Each player has to bring their best to their court every time they walk out.

    What matters is that Nadal took care of business and was at his best when his back was against the wall.

    If you don't believe me, just ask Isner if Nadal should be worried going forward.

2. Battle Tested

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    Nadal's ability to come out on top of close matches has never been in doubt.

    However, the top player isn't usually tested in a Grand Slam until the Round of 16 or so. Nadal has already passed a couple of tests, and that will help him moving forward. Now, if someone plays out of their mind against Nadal in the next couple of rounds, he'll be able to weather the storm.

    Being able to cruise in the first three rounds of a tournament has come back to nip so many players in the butt. Once they get down in the later rounds, they panic and try to force their play. Attempting to force your best tennis to come out rarely works, and many players fall earlier than expected in tournaments because of it.

    Nadal can rest easy knowing that two great players gave him some of their best tennis and he survived the challenge.

3. Roger Federer Effect

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    Roger Federer was down two sets to Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon in 2010 before he made his comeback. After struggling again in the second round, he made it all the way to the quarterfinals, where Tomas Berdych played the match of his life to beat Federer.

    Federer lost the first set at the 2010 Australian Open to Igor Andreev. He went on to win the entire tournament. Federer also had a test in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open against Bjorn Phau, but fought back from 5-3 down to win the match—and eventually the tournament.

    Basically, being down early doesn't mean you're out. Federer would take his early struggles and use them as learning experiences for the second week of the tournament. Great champions know how to battle out of holes, and still come up with the goods in the clutch.

    In fact, Federer always seemed to be rusty at the beginning of a tournament. He always found his game, and even posted better results against better players.

    Do you think Nadal is a great champion?

    I'm convinced he'll find a way to keep improving as the tournament progresses.

4. Conditioning Not a Factor

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    Nadal's not going to tire out.

    The reason most people think struggling early can hurt a player is in the department of conditioning. However, there's no player that can handle the grind of clay quite like Nadal can. If someone comes out and hits him off the court, so be it. But no one's going to be able to send Nadal home without hitting upward of 50 winners. Soderling had 61 in his 2009 upset.

    Nadal may look tired in the latter stages of a five-setter, but that won't slow him down during a point. There's very few shots on the red dirt that Nadal won't chase, but his training regimen allows him to do so.

    When Nadal lost to Soderling, the tendonitis in his knees was at its worst. This year, Nadal is smaller than in years past. He dropped some weight to alleviate the pressure on his knees, and his knees shouldn't be an issue at Roland Garros.

    Anyone making an argument that Nadal will wear out can bury it right in the red dirt.

5. Nadal Loves Doubters

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    People once said that Nadal couldn't win a Grand Slam on anything but clay. Done.

    People said that Nadal would never beat Roger at Wimbledon. Done.

    People demanded that Nadal would never be the same after his knee problems. Three Grand Slams titles in the last four chances says that one has been disproved too.

    Nadal loves being doubted. When people tell him he can't do something, he works doubly hard to go out and prove them wrong. Now, some are saying he's struggling at Roland Garros. His 40-1 record at the French Open seems to suggest otherwise, but Nadal will continue to fight and prove people wrong.

    Others have been saying that Novak Djokovic is the favorite to win the French Open. How can a five-time—and also defending—champion be an underdog? He's also the No. 1 player in the world, but he loves the challenge of being told he can't beat Djokovic.

    I'd be thoroughly surprised if he and Djokovic didn't meet in the final.

    For Nadal, that's the grandest stage to end Djokovic's streak of invincibility.