Commentary

Wind at Rafael Nadal's back

Updated: June 26, 2012, 6:24 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

WIMBLEDON, England -- If there was an example for avoiding the impulse to be declarative and definitive, to resist reacting to the alternately jagged and smooth edges of the moment, it would be Rafael Nadal.

Six months ago, in the heat of Melbourne, Nadal seemed faced with a career crisis at age 25: He was unable to overcome the immovable object in front of him in Novak Djokovic and was in danger of being overtaken as the No. 2 player in the world by the lurking Roger Federer. More so than losing to Djokovic on the court, Nadal was bereft of answers emotionally and strategically.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
Julian Finney/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has reached the Wimbledon final in five of the past six years.

For the first time in his career, the old devices were not working. Nadal could not beat a better player through will or sheer power. The vaunted forehand couldn't penetrate Djokovic's defense. The backhand wasn't hitting deep enough into the court, landing short into the Djokovic strike zone. The serve wasn't deadly enough. Nadal's 2011 season began with his chasing Rod Laver's Grand Slam, yet one calendar year later, the dreaded narrative focused on what Nadal was not. Even he, at least in part, admitted that he believed it.

Now, at Wimbledon, Nadal finds himself at a wholly different juncture in the river, not quite an eddy, because nothing is easy. Nadal believes in the suffering of competition, but certainly today he lives in water less complicated. Because of a clay season in which he went 23-1 with titles over Djokovic in Monte Carlo, Rome and Roland Garros -- denying Djokovic the coveted Grand Slam -- the man with the Djokovic problem is now soaring. He is a record seven-time French Open champion. He has won four titles, including a major, this year. He is tied with Bjorn Borg with 11 Grand Slam titles, and another title this year would put him in striking distance of Pete Sampras' 14 and perhaps even Federer's 16.

While Nadal is 49-1 with seven titles at Roland Garros, he also holds eight titles from Monte Carlo, seven from Barcelona and six from Rome. Nadal is even a dominant force on grass. He did not play Wimbledon in 2009 because of tendinitis in his knee but has reached the final every other year since 2005, winning twice.

Nadal has reduced Djokovic from an unbeatable mountain back to a rival to, once again, just a man. Nadal has played in five consecutive Grand Slam finals. Six months ago he looked defeated. Today the wind is at his back.

Maybe the fickleness of wins and losses does not faze Nadal. Maybe better than the rest he has the perspective to know that all of his chapters are still being written, that nothing is definitive while he is still performing. It was Nadal who said last year in the middle of Djokovic's supernova that it was virtually impossible for Djokovic to maintain such a superhuman pace in which every shot felt golden. Maybe Nadal is exactly where he has always thought he would be.

Nevertheless, regrouped, the Nadal who enters Wimbledon on Tuesday against talented Brazilian left-hander Thomaz Bellucci arrives without the larger, catastrophic tension that would have saddled him had he lost to Djokovic in the French final. That would have meant losing to Djokovic in four straight majors. Worse, that would have meant losing a final on Nadal's dominant surface after winning the first two sets.

But it didn't happen, and thus none of it matters, and because of victory, Nadal is now free and unhinged. Ridding himself of those psychological burdens during the clay season eases doubts, calms fears and increases confidence. It makes Nadal more dangerous than ever.

Instead of with doubt, Nadal enters Wimbledon chasing a rare feat for the third time: to win at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year. Only four men -- Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg (three times), Federer and Nadal (twice) -- have done this.

There are land mines, though, for Nadal. Bellucci is an emotional but good player, better than his world No. 78 ranking. He beat David Ferrer at Monte Carlo and took a set from Federer at Indian Wells. Nadal could meet Ivan Dodig in the second round. Dodig beat him in Montreal last year in three odd sets. Nadal could have a rematch with Philipp Kohlschreiber, who beat him in Halle two weeks ago.

An interesting match could be against Alexandr Dolgopolov, a sensational shot-maker who is high on flash but lacks consistency. However, the most intriguing match of Nadal's draw -- before a potential semifinal versus Andy Murray -- would be a quarterfinal confrontation with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The streaky Frenchman electrified the tournament last year by coming back from two sets down to beat Federer (who had been 181-0 when winning the first two sets of a match). Having lost four match points in a heartbreaker in the French quarterfinals to Djokovic on his worst surface, Tsonga (who injured a finger at Queen's Club two weeks ago) could be on the cusp of a major breakthrough if he performs at his best.

For Nadal, however, the hunger to win a third Wimbledon title undoubtedly will be present without the doubts that plagued him throughout most of the year. A driven, clear-minded Nadal is an opponent no one wants to face.