Even though his current game leaves a lot to be desired compared to last year’s dazzling form, Rafael Nadal seems to be back on the right track.
After two rather laborious matches in Rounds 1 and 2, against John Isner and Pablo Andujar respectively, the No. 1 seed has notched up two pleasing victories, against Antonio Veic in the previous round and against Croatia's Ivan Ljubicic (37th) today, clinching the match in straight sets 7-5, 6-3, 6-3, in two hours and 26 minutes.
In the first round, John Isner forced Nadal to play his first-ever five-setter on the Parisian red clay. Until then, the Mallorcan had never dropped a set before the third round. Last year, as in 2008, he did not lose a single set in his triumphant quest for victory. Before the match against John Isner, “Rafa” had only lost 10 sets in six appearances in the tournament and never more than three per edition.
In his seventh appearance at Roland-Garros, “Rafa” now advances to the quarterfinals of the French Open for the sixth time in his career. To this day, every time he has reached this stage of the competition, he has proudly lifted the Coupe des Mousquetaires just a few days later. His rivals have been warned!
French Open champion in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010, the World No. 1 has only ever been defeated once at the Porte d’Auteuil. It was in 2009, against Sweden’s Robin Söderling in the Round of 16. This is also his first and only defeat to date in a best-of-five match on clay.
The five-time winner of Roland-Garros has the chance to go down in the tournament’s history books this year. If he wins once again at the Porte d’Auteuil, he will equal Björn Borg’s record for the highest number of titles won at Roland-Garros (six).
Clearly, the World No. 1 has not been at the level he was last year. However, there is still encouraging signs to see the Spaniard win despite not playing at his best.
Is he injured? Is he exhausted? Is he still overwhelmed by the four consecutive defeats to Novak Djokovic? Or maybe it's little bit of all three factors that makes him more vulnerable than ever on his favorite surface.
It will be fascinating to see if Nadal can still produce his best tennis this week. Given what he has shown in the previous rounds, he can only get better.
Robin Söderling, the only player to have beaten Nadal at Roland-Garros two years ago, knows what it takes to beat the five-time French Open champion.
Is it a coincidence or not? It is precisely Robin Söderling who Rafael Nadal will have to face in the quarterfinals. It will be the third consecutive year that both players will meet at Roland-Garros, with one victory for each on the Paris soil.
Nadal will face his biggest challenge of the tournament so far. If he is still playing at the level that he has played today, the Swede will win. However, I would be stunned if Nadal does not improve his level by a notch.