Commentary

How will Rafa respond to early scare?

Originally Published: May 24, 2011
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

PARIS -- A fifth set in Paris. Uncharted territory for Rafael Nadal, but he did manage to navigate safely past John Isner and avoid a first-round upset for the ages. What now? Did surviving the scare put him on track for a record-tying sixth French Open crown or foretell more troubles to come?

In the end, the roller coaster showed it might be possible to defeat Nadal sometime over the next two weeks, but also just how tough that is to do.

After winning the first set Tuesday, Nadal dropped two tiebreakers to allow the big-serving 6-foot-9 Isner to charge to a two-sets-to-one lead, but then summoned his famous battling spirit to produce some fine play in the latter stages of the match. "I haven't seen tennis like that ever," said Isner, whose big serves and impressive net-rushing kept him in the match until fatigue set in during the fifth set.

But Nadal, though relieved with the win, wore a brooding expression afterward. "I didn't play well the tiebreaks," he said. "I played too nervous in my opinion."

"I was a bit lost at one stage -- which happened also during the previous months," he added later in Spanish, and rattled off a list when asked.

"Miami, [Tomas] Berdych [in the first round], that was a disaster," said Nadal, sounding a trifle dramatic in English parlance. "Then Federer [in the semifinals]. I was leading. I had a break. He came back. He won the first set.

"In Monte Carlo, [Andy] Murray. Everything was fine, and then I lost [the second set] and suffered during the third set. So these are disasters. These are mistakes that I didn't make in the past, and I have been making these mistakes over the last few months.

"I accept this. Once you accept there is a problem, you can face the problem and find solutions to the problems."

Having escaped against Isner, a tough first-round opponent by any standard, Nadal at least now has the opportunity to build his form and confidence as the tournament progresses. He is not expected to have much trouble against fellow Spaniard Pablo Andujar in the second round.

"Once he got that break [in the fourth set against Isner], you could see a real lease of life come into his body language," said ESPN commentator Darren Cahill, adding that some of Nadal's tentative play stemmed from not wanting to make a mistake when he got an opportunity to get into a rally against Isner's serve.

"Normally he's more authoritative from the back of the court, but he really didn't want to miss when he got into those rallies, so he did drop a lot of balls short and gave John opportunities to step in and hit short balls. I don't think you'll see that happen as much anymore. As the tournament progresses, he'll start to get a feel for this baseline game. He's still playing great tennis.

"By and all, he's still been as dominant on the clay as he has been in previous years -- if you remove [Novak] Djokovic."

But after Nadal's four straight losses against Djokovic this year -- two of which came on clay -- the Serb cannot be easily removed from the conversation. Add the stumbles against Isner on Tuesday and Pablo Lorenzi at the Rome Masters and memories of Robin Soderling's win against Nadal at this event two years ago, and there is a sense that the locker room is slowly unlocking the pieces of Nadal's game -- going on court with some ideas of what to do, even if doing it remains another matter altogether.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.