Rafael Nadal is living up to his tag of being the undisputed king of the clay courts despite his difficult year. Twelve months ago when the Spaniard arrived at Roland Garros, he was the Australian, Wimbledon and French Open champion and a fifth consecutive grand slam crown in Paris seemed a mere formality. Then the unthinkable happened. Robin Soderling ended Nadal's 31-match French Open winning streak. Tendonitis in his knee forced him to withdraw from Wimbledon. He was dumped out in the semi-final by Juan Martin Del Potro, the eventual champion, at the US Open and was forced to quit midway through his quarter-final against Andy Murray at the Australian Open because of a persistent knee injury.
For someone who turned professional at 15, beat Roger Federer in their first meeting when he was 17 and won the French Open on his maiden visit as a 19-year-old, the world had suddenly turned pear-shaped. The divorce of his parents last year had left an emotional scar and injuries only added to the woes. "My parents' divorce made an important change in my life," Nadal, the world No 2, was quoted as saying in the latest issue of the ATP's Deuce magazine. "It affected me. After that, when I can't play Wimbledon, it was tough.
"For one month, I was outside the world. I am OK now, but you need time to accept. And it's more difficult to accept when you are outside home and don't know what's happening. At least the injury gave me time to be with my friends and family." Nadal, 23, found some success at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami, losing in the semi-finals. But then he arrived on clay and the transformation was almost immediate.
Nadal ended his 351-day title drought at Monte Carlo, becoming the first man in the Open era to win any title for six consecutive years. Two weeks later, he added the Rome crown and followed up with a triumph at Madrid to complete a historic sweep of Masters 1000 clay titles. With the confidence of those three titles behind him, Nadal has cruised into the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. Last night, he dispatched Thomaz Bellucci 6-2, 7-5, 6-4 to take his place among the last eight.
In 19 matches on the clay so far this season, he has lost just three sets. The six-time grand slam winner, however, admits he is still far from his best, but is hoping to get there through endeavour. "Well, let's face it," he is quoted as saying on the French Open website, "I don't know if I'm playing my best tennis? [but] I think I've played really well throughout the year here. "I think that I have worked hard for a long period of time. And when we work a lot, when we practice a lot, when we're very positive, when we're highly motivated, then after a while things go on nicely.
"I'm always, always motivated, otherwise it would be a pity if I had no more dreams at 23 or 24. I'm very competitive, and my ideal is to be the best. Not against the others, but I want to be better compared with my own self." Novak Djokovic, the world No 3 and reigning two-time champion in Dubai, has also been going through a lean patch with just the one title this year, and his allergy condition has made it tough. "Lately I have been facing that problem, and it has been a struggle, definitely," said Djokovic, who also reached the last eight with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, 6-2 win over Robby Ginepri yesterday. "This is a part of my life, part of my genetics, and I will have to prepare better for next year.
"Clay courts are not the best surface for my allergy? I have to go through it. I have learned how to go through the difficult periods, how to put that aside and just focus to play my best." firstname.lastname@example.org