DOHA, January 8 – Rafael Nadal, seeking his first ATP World Tour title in eight months, admitted after reaching the semi-finals of the Qatar Open that he has been suffering from a crisis of confidence.
"I have had a lot of problems in the head," the former world number one said after winning 6-1, 2-0 when his opponent, the Belgian qualifier Steve Darcis, retired after only 35 minutes of very one-sided action.
"I have had under-confidence and things in the head – but that’s life. You have to accept problems and you have to come back. I am trying. We will see what happens in the next six months."
For someone who has been conspicuously stable while closing out matches, rarely letting slip opportunities to win when they present themselves, Nadal’s words superficially contained an element of surprise.
However, he has had increasing problems with arthritic knees, suffered from a stomach ailment, and reportedly been affected by the recent break-up of his parents’ marriage.
The 24-year-old Majorcan took only two days’ break over Christmas before returning to training and is here in Doha with his mother, though not his uncle-coach Toni. Apparently he will link up in Melbourne for Nadal’s defence of the Australian Open title the week after next.
Nadal was asked whether the media has been too impatient with him – suggesting that he is not the player he was, for having reached just one final since returning from a three-month absence in August.
"We will see in a few months," Nadal replied amicably. "Everyone is free to talk. I can say nothing against them. I didn’t win against the best players.
"But that’s tennis – you can’t be all the time one hundred percent. I am ready to try and win tournaments, but you never know what will happen. You have to work every day, every week, and wait your moment."
During the very short time Nadal was on court it was apparent that he was trying to be more forceful with his first serve, later volunteering to having made small improvements identified after many hours of watching videos with his uncle.
He also put plenty of energy into his pumping topspin drives, applying plenty of pressure without waiting for opportunities for his more characteristic counter-attacks. The highlight though was an inventive winning lob, played off his body like a cricket shot.
Nadal’s semi-final opponent is Viktor Troicki, the tenacious Serbian, who came from 2-5 down in the final set to win 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7/1) against Lukasz Kubot, the first Pole to break into the world’s top 100 since Wojtek Fibak a quarter of a century ago.
Nadal is now just one win from a 21st encounter with his great rival, Roger Federer, who reached the semi-finals only after a tough middle spell against the hard-hitting and talented but erratic Ernests Gulbis, whom he beat 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Federer looked comfortable at the start, but found the going much harder when the 21-year-old Latvian began to land a high percentage of very high speed first serves during the second set, and to find his range with some ripping follow-up ground strokes.
Gulbis even broke back to lead 4-3 in the final set, but lacked the consistency to win the big points against the world number one when it really mattered. He had done enough though to suggest, not for the first time, that he ought to be pushing towards the top 20 rather than languishing at world number 90.