After a straight sets victory over Ivan Ljubicic, Rafael Nadal expressed his displeasure with his own performance thus far at Roland Garros.
"The thing is you have to be realist, and today I'm not playing well enough to win this tournament," Nadal said after the victory.
For someone who has only lost one match in 43 chances on the red clay of Paris, Nadal's confidence seems awfully low. Perhaps he's having flashbacks to 2009 when, in the quarterfinals, Nadal fell to Robin Soderling in four sets.
The two will meet in the quarterfinals again on Wednesday, but even if Nadal can take down the big-swinging Swede, he's got a host of other roadblocks to deal with if he wants to hoist his sixth French Open title.
Soderling remains the last and only player to defeat Rafa at the French Open (though Nadal defeated Soderling in the final of the 2010 French Open).
With his unconventional, high backswing on his forehand, Soderling is able to generate a flat, almost downward angle on the high-bouncing clay. He'll need to hit it consistently, moving Nadal to both wings in order to draw the slice for the put away.
Soderling looked strong in his win over Frenchman Gilles Simon, and if there's one player who knows exactly what he needs to do to beat Nadal, it's Soderling. It's just a matter of execution.
The unseeded Argentine faces Andy Murray in the quarterfinals for the right to face Nadal (assuming he takes down Soderling) in the semifinals.
Chela doesn't have anything that can hurt Nadal, but he's very comfortable on clay; it certainly won't be an easy match for Nadal. Rafa will win, but if he's pushed to four or five sets, Nadal's already long tournament will extend even further.
Nadal: Four matches, 11 hours on court.
Federer: Five matches, nine hours on court.
Djokovic: Five rounds (four matches), just seven hours on court.
While Nadal is known for being in phenomenal shape, being on the court for that much longer than his opponents willcatch up to him. Even the strongest athletes appreciate a little rest, and Djokovic will have had almost a full work-week to rest for his semifinal with Federer.
Fourth-seeded Murray rolled his right ankle in his third-round match. Then, he came back from two sets down against Viktor Troicki to reach the quarterfinals against Juan Ignacio Chela.
It'll take a big effort by Murray to get by the experienced clay-courter Chela, and I don't think he'll be able to defeat Nadal either. But whoever wins the Chela-Murray quarterfinal will give Nadal a tough match in the semifinals. At this point, Nadal needs all the rest he can get and neither Chela nor Murray will offer him that.
Tennis players know that swings like this one take a very real toll on the body. The knees fight to stop the body's momentum in the slide. The groin fights to push the body back upwards. The back is unnaturally stretched and strained. We've seen Nadal fight various leg problems over the last few years, and his run at the French Open thus far hasn't gone as smoothly as planned.
The big-serving American John Isner took Nadal to five sets in the opening round. Pablo Andujar made Nadal work much harder than expected in the second round despite losing in straight sets, 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (4).
If he makes it to the finals, Nadal will almost surely be less fresh than his opponent, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer. Djokovic received a quarterfinal walkover from Fabio Fognini, and Federer is the only man left in the tournament who has yet to drop a set.
Anybody who has ever played competitive tennis—hit a second serve on a windy day or an approach forehand down break point—knows how important confidence is. And listening to Nadal's post-Ljubicic-match interview, it's clear his swagger's lacking.
Nadal can't be afraid to strike from the wings against Soderling. If he leaves balls short, the big-swinger will use his flat forehand to run Nadal around the court.
Nadal will need to up his confidence level if he wants to have a chance to make the final, let alone beat the streaking Djokovic or Federer.
Equipment provider Babolat supplied the tennis balls for this year's French Open. Several players have complained about the balls, including Djokovic, saying that the balls favor big servers.
If this is true, it could spell trouble for Nadal. A big server, Isner, took him to five sets in the opening round. But Isner didn't have the ground game to back it up. Soderling does. His flat serve could win him some easy points, and his kick serve will produce some short returns. It's tough enough to break an elite server, it's even tougher if the balls are working against you.
Commentators Darren Cahill and Brad Gilbert are always talking about how fast the clay courts are playing, saying that they might as well be hard courts.
Obviously, this doesn't bode well for Nadal, who grew up on the clay and has won five French Opens. Nadal wants the ball to play slow, to sit up, and grip his topspin for a higher bounce. If Nadal's balls aren't bouncing as high as he'd like, he's going to have some trouble dictating play.
First of all, any fan of Roger Federer—no, of tennis at the highest level—should read this, right now. And if you've already read it, read it again.
Federer made relatively easy work of Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals to set up a semifinal matchup with Djokovic. The Greatest Of All Time is playing well, but he's clearly on the downside of his career and people know it.
When asked if being considered on the outside looking in, Federer admitted to being a little bit irked. He's used to being the favorite or second favorite, regardless of tournament or age. I want to like Federer in his semifinal against Djokovic, but it's tough to pick against a guy who's won this many straight. If there's one thing Federer has going for him, it's that he still has one more "F-You Game" (Bill Simmons-coined) in him. He wants to prove that he's still the class of the game, and winning this major on his least favorite surface would do just that.
No matter what the betting odds said that the tournament's outset, Djokovic was and still is the favorite to win the French Open.
The Serb is in the prime of his career and has won all 41 matches he's played in 2011. He received a quarterfinal walkover from Fognini, who wouldn't have offered much competition anyway.
Even if things go well for Nadal versus Soderling and Murray / Chela, he'll still be fighting an uphill battle against Djokovic, who has beaten him twice on clay already this season.
Djokovic is able to find success against Nadal because of his unmatched backhand. Against Federer, Nadal just spins the ball high to the backhand and attacks the next ball. Djokovic will just hit the ball back harder and Nadal will be flustered.
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why Rafael Nadal could win the French Open: experience, pedigree, etc. And though there are just as many reasons why he can't win the French Open, there's only one that matters: Djokovic.