PARIS ó Decoding Rafael Nadalís self-evaluations can be a tricky proposition.
Listen, for example, to the way the top-seeded Nadal spoke about his game and his mindset after handling 37th-ranked Ivan Ljubicic of Croatia 7-5, 6-3, 6-3 Monday to reach the quarterfinals at the French Open, improve his record there to 42-1 and get closer to tying Bjorn Borgís record of six championships in Paris.
Nadal chastised himself for being ětoo anxious.î He said he needs to ěhit the ball with a little bit more conviction.î Looking at the big picture, Nadal insisted: ěThe thing is, you have to be (a) realist, and today, Iím not playing well enough to win this tournament.î
Maybe heís playing possum. Maybe heís being sincere. Or maybe ó as explained by Toni Nadal, Rafaelís uncle and coach ó this is just the way his nephew is.
ěAll his life, Rafael never had big, big confidence,î Toni said Monday. ěHeís not a guy who thinks, ëOh, I am so good.í Never. He tries to improve, he tries to play better, every day.î
Toniís nephew has done precisely that at Roland Garros. Since falling behind two-sets-to-one against John Isner in the first round last week, heís won 11 consecutive sets. He made half as many unforced errors as 2006 French Open semifinalist Ljubicic, 48-24. He accumulated 20 break points, converting six.
After trailing 4-5, 30-all ó ěI felt like he felt the pressure,î said Ljubicic, who was two points from taking the first set there ó Nadal steeled himself and won 30 of the next 32 points on his serve.
ěFor moments, I am playing well. But for moments, I am still having (a) few mistakes in a row,î Nadal said. ěThatís what cannot happen in (the) next round.î
Thatís because heíll face No. 5 Robin Soderling of Sweden, the only man to defeat Nadal at the French Open ó in the fourth round in 2009. Itís also a rematch of last yearís final, which Nadal won in straight sets.
While Nadal and Soderling both advanced with relative ease Monday, 34th-ranked Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina put in a lot of work before edging Alejandro Falla of Colombia 4-6, 6-2, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2 to return to the Roland Garros quarterfinals for the first time since 2004.
Chela will play No. 4 Andy Murray or No. 15 Viktor Troicki, whose match was suspended because of darkness tied at two sets each.
ěI wouldnít have believed it,î the 31-year-old Chela said, ěif you had told me, seven years later, I would still be here.î
Maria Sharapova went two years without getting to the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam tournament, but she made it back by erasing deficits in both sets and beating 12th-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland 7-6 (4), 7-5. The three-time major champion fell behind 4-1 in the first set, then 5-3 in the second, where she had to fend off five set points.
Sharapova finished with far more winners, 47-13, and unforced errors, 44-12. Her quarterfinal opponent will be No. 15 Andrea Petkovic of Germany, who defeated No. 25 Maria Kirilenko 6-2, 2-6, 6-4. Another quarterfinal will have No. 4 Victoria Azarenka of Belarus against No. 6 Li Na of China.
Azarenka reached her fourth career Grand Slam quarterfinal ó sheís never won one ó by beating Ekaterina Makarova of Russia 6-2, 6-3, while Li came back to beat No. 9 Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic 2-6, 6-1, 6-3 for Chinaís first French Open quarterfinalist. She became her countryís first finalist at any major tournament at the Australian Open in January.
In an on-court interview after he eliminated No. 18 Gilles Simon of France 6-2, 6-3, 7-6 (5), Soderling was told that some people ó including, as it happens, Nadal himself ó are saying the five-time champion isnít at his best.
That drew a comment of ěI hope not,î and an accompanying chortle from Soderling.
ěNo, seriously, heís a great player. I think everybody knows what he can do. He won here so many times,î continued the Swede, who lost to Roger Federer in the 2009 French Open final. ěEvery match is different. It doesnít matter how you got to the quarters, as long as youíre there.î
Novak Djokovic might say the same about how he got to the semifinals. The No. 2-seeded Serbís quarterfinal opponent, Fabio Fognini of Italy, pulled out of the tournament Monday because he hurt a left leg muscle during his five-set win a day earlier.
That wonít count as a victory for Djokovic, so his winning streak stays at 43 matches overall ó heís 41-0 in 2011 ó heading into what could be a semifinal against 16-time Grand Slam champion Federer.
Djokovic wrote on Twitter: ěWalkover from Fognini. Bad luck for him, hope he recovers fast. Today i get to enjoy Paris in a different way :-)î
Thereís plenty of time for sightseeing: Djokovic is off until Fridayís semifinals. Nadal was asked how heíd feel about a four-day break.
ěFantastic, no? Tell me: Whatís the worst part of that?î Nadal replied.
When it was mentioned time off could disrupt Djokovicís rhythm, Nadal scoffed: ěWith, I donít know, 40-something straight victories, you think heís out of rhythm now?î
Djokovicís streak includes a 4-0 mark this season against Nadal, all in tournament finals, including at clay-court events at Madrid and Rome this month. Many point to that as a reason for Nadalís current concerns, and even Uncle Toni acknowledged: ěWhen you lose four times to one player, it is bad for the confidence.î
Djokovic also is 3-0 in 2011 against Federer, who plays No. 9 Gael Monfils of France in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
ěPeople donít talk about Roger a lot, but heís had very easy wins against all his opponents since the beginning of this tournament,î said Monfils, who finished off a 6-4, 2-6, 7-5, 1-6, 8-6 victory over No. 7 David Ferrer.
ěHeís in great shape,î Monfils said about Federer, ěand he hasnít got anything to prove to anyone.î
Nadal probably doesnít, either, but he sounds as if heís trying to prove things to himself.
ěNow he has four matches under the belt,î Ljubicic said, ěand if he managed to win the next one, heís back in business, even confidencewise.î
Howard Fendrich can be reached at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
The Associated Press