7:12 AM ET
Peter Bodo has been covering tennis for over 35 years, mostly recently for ESPN. He is a former WTA Writer of the Year and the author of numerous books, including the classic “The Courts of Babylon” and the New York Times bestseller (with Pete Sampras), “A Champion’s Mind.”
Rafael Nadal is back in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam event for the first time since 2015, when Novak Djokovic insolently dismissed him from the French Open, the tournament Nadal once dominated.
That loss was a painful humiliation for Nadal, part of a downward spiral that was accelerated over the ensuing months by self-doubts that had a corrosive effect on his effectiveness. Injury, which first became a steady companion for Nadal way back in 2009, also played a large role in a swoon that saw Nadal start this year ranked No. 9, a 14-time Grand Slam singles champ written off by many as a shadow of his former “King of Clay” self.
But hold everything. Should Nadal survive the bombardment in store when he plays ace machine Milos Raonic in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, he has an excellent chance to make the final. In a tournament that lost its top two seeds, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, respectively, Nadal could potentially play a title match against his old frenemy, Roger Federer.
Looking ahead to his match with Raonic, Nadal told the press: “I need to be very focused with my serve and play aggressive. If I am not playing aggressive, then I am dead, because he plays aggressive.”
Nadal sounded like he couldn’t remind himself enough of how confidently he must play, and it’s understandable. About two years ago, his signature self-assurance and steady nerves deserted him. As Pat Cash, a former Wimbledon champ, said in an interview with the UAE’s Sport 360 website in late 2016: “For Rafa, it’s about rebuilding his confidence. Last year, we saw him just losing his confidence under pressure. When he’s in good form, his depth [of shot] is unbelievably good, and when he’s not in good form, it’s really poor, and the guys are taking advantage of that now.”
Nadal’s crisis has been conspicuous. He built a glorious career on his stamina and unrelenting effort that so often left him the last man standing. But Nadal lost three consecutive five-set matches before he finally won