PARIS -- After a seven-month sabbatical from tennis, it would be completely normal to see a drastic drop-off in performance, no?
And yet, after returning from a serious knee injury, Rafael Nadal has managed to reach the final of all eight tournaments he played, winning six of them -- his best-ever total coming into the leafy grounds of Roland Garros.
On Thursday, third-seeded Nadal advanced to the third round, and his career record here stands at 54-1. A number of notable prognosticators have him winning an unprecedented eighth title here, but & quite frankly, he seems a little off his game.
Certainly, Rafa won the war against plucky Slovakian Martin Klizan 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 6-3, but he lost the battle for the opening set for the second time in as many matches. That had never happened to him in Paris. In fact, his first-round match against Daniel Brands of Germany featured his first dropped initial set in nine French Opens.
In the rigid world of Nadal, this kind of inconsistency is cause for alarm.
Rafa blamed the weather. Because of all the rain, he practiced for only about 20 minutes indoors Tuesday. It was 90 minutes Wednesday, but only a half-hour or so Thursday.
"So played not much tennis during three days," Nadal explained. "So I started the match probably with not the right intensity, with more doubts than usual. And positive thing that I had a good reaction at the beginning of the second, playing -- even if I didn't play fantastic -- I played the way that I had to play, with intensity, with passion.
"So just happy to be through at the end. That's the real thing."
Then he took a shot at the French Tennis Federation, saying he should have been scheduled earlier Thursday, when his match was postponed.
"I cannot play third after men's and girls when our possible opponents plays second after girls," Nadal said. "That's not fair. And today I was playing almost three hours on court, and my [next] opponent was watching the TV in the locker room.
"Only thing that I can do is be positive, smile, and try to win my match and try to be ready for tomorrow."
The FTF, apparently, is concerned about Rafa's game. The organization issued a news release with the headline "Lackluster Nadal." The first lines said: "Could Rafael Nadal be getting into bad habits? The Parisian crowds are not used to this kind of behavior from the 'King of Clay.'"
Meticulous and compulsive Rafa has never been a swift operator, but he's been on the court for a total of 5 hours, 38 minutes after two matches and has lost a total of 34 games.
By contrast, No. 2 seed Roger Federer dispatched two qualifiers in the quickest matches of the first two men's rounds -- a total of 2 hours, 42 minutes -- and dropped only 11 games. This is noteworthy because either Federer or Nadal is likely to emerge from this fortnight with the most match wins in French Open history.
Klizan, only 23 and rising swiftly in the ATP World Tour rankings, never seemed terribly intimidated by Nadal. Maybe it's because he is a former French Open junior champion (in 2006, at age 16) and knows the lay of the land here. Or perhaps because they both came into the match with exactly one loss at Roland Garros -- of course, Nadal had won 51 more than Klizan's two matches. He has a big serve and a forehand to match and, at the same time, has a deft touch with the drop shot.
In general, Nadal served indifferently and missed a number of shots he usually makes. He rallied, of course, after that first set and methodically ground Klizan into a fine paste. But make no mistake, Rafa's not feeling the French flow quite yet. Uncle Toni Nadal, his coach since age 4, will be complaining of a sore jaw Saturday after spending so much time clenching those muscles in the end zone box at Court Suzanne Lenglen.
On his second-to-last point, Rafa chipped a delicate drop shot that ticked the net cord and fell with an almost imperceptible bounce. When Klizan's backhand sailed long, Nadal went into his pro forma finish -- hitting a ball into the crowd, pulling off his bandanna, shaking the sweat from his thick hair and congratulating his opponent on a nice match. But the smile seemed forced and his body language was less strident than usual.
"I had so many chances third and fourth set, also, and I just didn't use it," Klizan said afterward. "That's why I lost, because he had one chance; he use one. I had three chances; I didn't use even one."
Fabio Fognini, a stylish Italian and the 27th seed, will be Rafa's next opponent.
"He's a very serious player," Nadal said. "He's in the third round. He's confident. I think he's going to play even better than he played today. At any rate, I'm going to try and play better than I played today. I will try to be more aggressive. I think I have to deliver a top performance."