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Sunday, June 5, 2011
Less-than-stellar Nadal good enough

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

PARIS -- It's not a stretch to say Rafael Nadal was a little fortunate this fortnight. The Spaniard, who beat Roger Federer in Sunday's French Open final, wasn't his usual dominating self these past two weeks.

As Brad Gilbert would put it, he won ugly.

Jim Courier was certainly in agreement.

Asked if this Nadal was the overpowering, mental behemoth of years past in Paris, Courier, a French Open winner 20 years ago who took part in the trophy presentation Sunday, replied, "No, but he won anyway."

En route to his previous nine Grand Slam titles, never before had Nadal exhibited so much nervousness and anxiousness on court. He surprisingly said as much, reeling from four straight losses to Novak Djokovic, two on clay. The fearless and carefree Nadal was in the shadows.

It all started when he was taken to five sets by American John Isner in the first round. Though he was encouraged by winning the final two sets in style, cause for concern was that Nadal blew a set and break lead earlier. The manner in which his second-round match unfolded against relative unknown Pablo Andujar was worrying for his fans, too. He had to rally from 5-1 down in the third set, saving eight set points.

Up stepped Croatian qualifier Antonio Veic next for a bit of relief, but Nadal was distinctly mediocre, as he was versus another Croatian, Ivan Ljubicic, in the fourth round. Nadal would break, then get broken back, and went 6-for-20 on break chances overall.

Only in downing last year's finalist, Robin Soderling, did Nadal play some of his best tennis, which made a little sense. Unlike in earlier rounds, the onus wasn't on Nadal to attack. He was able to rely on instinct and defend more, soaking up the Swede's artillery and scrambling in large parts.

He let slip a 5-1 first-set lead in the semifinals against a less than 100 percent Andy Murray, pegged back to 5-5.

"The real Rafa is both the Rafa who wins and the Rafa who plays well, and the Rafa who suffers and doesn't play that well," Nadal said. "You have to face this situation."

Uncle Toni, Nadal's coach, didn't quite expect his nephew to win it all, either, in the early stages. He called it the toughest of his six triumphs at Roland Garros.

"He [could have gone] out in the first round," Toni Nadal said.

And he was far from assured against Federer. If Federer's drop shot at set point in the first had landed in, and it was only a smidgeon wide, the Swiss' hoodoo against Nadal at the French Open probably would have ended.

Nadal couldn't serve out the second set and wasted a 4-2 advantage in the third, getting broken to love immediately. In another "what if" moment, Federer, free flowing in his upset win over streak king Djokovic on Friday, was unable to take three straight break points to start the fourth.

Nadal didn't have "full confidence," admitted Toni Nadal, dissimilar to when he crushed Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 in the final three years ago.

"Then Roger played really well against Djokovic," Toni Nadal said. "When we think about these two, we think today is not easy for us. When we played against Federer in 2008, when we were in the locker room, I felt Rafael was better. Today there was one moment, from 4-2 [in the third set to the first game in the fourth when] Roger Federer was so much better than us, and in the first set Federer was better, too."

Yes, Federer won't get a better opportunity to overcome Nadal at the French Open.

Nadal habitually uses the French Open as a springboard for success at Wimbledon, completing the double twice already. Should he win a third Wimbledon crown, no one would be entirely surprised.

But even though he won here again, cracks in Nadal's armory have surfaced, and that's sure to give Federer and Djokovic plenty of hope on the lawn.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.