Commentary

Rafa can now focus on tennis only

Updated: March 27, 2012, 7:06 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- He lost only six games in his first two matches, but Tuesday's meeting with Kei Nishikori was stressful, to say the least.

Rafael Nadal survived seven break points, a worrisome sideline visit by the trainer for a tender left knee, and after 1 hour, 11 minutes and a total of 78 points, he was a winner.

And that was just the first set.

Nadal is the No. 2-ranked player in the world, but everything seems to require an effort these days. But, contrary to popular belief, Rafa has won a title in the past 10 months. It was the doubles crown, with fellow Spaniard Marc Lopez, a few weeks ago in Indian Wells.

He finds himself here at the Sony Ericsson Open moving toward another final confrontation with Novak Djokovic -- the No. 1-ranked player who has beaten him seven straight times. Nadal handled Nishikori 6-4, 6-4 to advance to the quarterfinals. He'll play the winner of the Jo-Wilfried Tsonga-Florian Mayer encounter and, if the seeds hold, face No. 4 Andy Murray in the semifinals.

One thing that surely will improve his on-court focus: Nadal confirmed Tuesday that has resigned as the vice president of the ATP Player Council. He seemed to be suggesting his two-year tenure has cost him in terms of tennis; Ivan Ljubicic and Tim Henman both said the same thing when they left their positions with the player council.

"I have been there for a couple of years," Nadal said. "I really don't know how to do things without put[ting in] my 100 percent. I put all my energy there. So last year at the end of the season, was a lot of things there. Finally, I believe, I put too much energy there.

"I believe that we did few things well for the sport. I believe it's not enough. So today I believe that I am not the right one to keep working there."

It has been reported widely that Nadal was increasingly frustrated with player representatives, particularly council president Roger Federer, who has opposed Rafa's proposed two-year ranking system, which would make it easier for top players to withdraw from events with injuries.

"I never said that I have been frustrated, no," Nadal said. "I just said that I am not the right one.

"I can be there just listening, but that's not my style, no? I understand my period finish[ed], and that's it. So there is always troubles there. I understand sometimes the trouble from the other part, from tournaments, but I don't understand sometimes the trouble from our part, from our reps, no?"

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal always has played with an unwavering will, but clearly outside distractions have affected him.

Last year Nadal went on his annual spring romp through the clay-court season, capturing familiar titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Roland Garros. But since then he's developed that bad habit of finishing second to Djokovic. The most recent example -- an epic 5-hour, 53-minute finals loss at the Australian Open -- left folks wondering about the condition of his historically unwavering will.

Nadal is less than two months from his 26th birthday, but there is now a world-weariness about him. He always has been a voracious practice player, with a superb work ethic and an eager, relentless approach. But the brutal physicality of his game has always taken a toll on various joints and muscles; he took a month off after the Australian Open to heal up, but one suspects it might have served as a welcome mental health break, too.

The question looms: Has the battering of his psyche at the hands of Djokovic metastasized beyond their one-on-one relationship? There was a moment during his semifinal match with Roger Federer at Indian Wells -- won handily by the Swiss champion -- when Nadal flashed the same look of bafflement seen in last year's Wimbledon final.

It never came to that against Nishikori, a 22-year-old from Japan. He is a stylish shot-maker and takes the ball as early as possible, but he doesn't have the pace to truly threaten Nadal. In the end, Nadal's still-extraordinary retrieving ability and heavy forehand pushed his career mark against Nishikori to 4-0.

Nadal shrugged off the trainer's visit, saying it was a reoccurrence of an injury first sustained at Indian Wells.

"I am not probably at perfect conditions today with the left knee, but important thing is try to win as many matches as possible," Nadal said, suddenly sounding pragmatic. "For me here is important tournament, and every victory have very, very big value for me, especially without being perfect."

Going forward, this is his reality.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.