Spain's Rafael Nadal once again struggled with uneven form at the French Open, rallying from a 1-5 deficit in the third set to defeat unheralded countryman Pablo Andujar 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4) Thursday and advance to the third round.
The four losses Nadal has suffered this year at the hands of Serbia's Novak Djokovic, including two on clay, seem to have struck a blow to his confidence and given hope to the rest of the players, who now sense an opportunity for the biggest scalp of their careers.
Nadal's mere presence on clay used to inspire fear in the other players, but big-serving American John Isner put the Spaniard against the ropes on Tuesday in the first round before falling in five sets.
On Thursday, the 48th-ranked Andujar battled the world No. 1 in long baseline rallies of up to 25 shots and held a 5-1 lead and eight set points in the third set before Nadal rallied to take the match in a tiebreaker.
In that decider, Andujar fell behind early but had a chance to tie the score at 5-5 before blowing the opportunity by dumping a drop shot in the net.
One point later, he sent a forehand over the baseline and Nadal escaped with a straight-set victory.
Despite the win, Nadal recognized that he will not be able to remain in the tournament much longer if his form does not improve quickly.
"What I'm lacking the most, no doubt about it, is my legs but that's because ... I have a little more nerves than usual ... and I've got to overcome that or go home and improve for the next tournament."
The five-time French Open champion said his struggles this year are not due to pressure from the second-ranked Djokovic, who is assured of the No. 1 ranking if Nadal does not win the tournament.
Djokovic, who brings an incredible 41-match winning streak into his third-round match Friday against Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro, will also claim the No. 1 ranking by reaching the final, even if he were to lose to Nadal in that round.
"There's no pressure from Djokovic. That would come if we meet in the final. But the No. 1 ranking is gone. That doesn't matter to me. I'm not feeling pressure because of that," Nadal, who is trying to tie Swedish great Bjorn Borg's record of six French Open titles, said.
"I also don't have to prove anything extra. Right now I have all that I have in my trophy cabinet and no one can take that away from me," the 24-year-old, nine-time Grand Slam champion said.
"I have to find my tennis and that's the important thing. What I need is a jump in my quality of play and that's what I'm going to try to do. I'm already doing it in my practice sessions ... I'm not happy but I'm here," Nadal said.
Next up on Saturday for the world No. 1 will be Croatia's Antonio Veic, who upset Russian Nikolay Davydenko 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1 in another second-round match on Thursday.