Paris: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray believe Rafael Nadal is not ready for the scrapheap despite being dethroned as French Open champion and facing life outside the top 10 for the first time in a decade.
Djokovic routed nine-time Roland Garros winner Nadal in straight sets in a brutal quarter-final demolition on Wednesday that condemned the Spaniard to only his second loss in 72 matches in Paris since his 2005 debut.
Spain's Rafael Nadal gets readu tp serve to Serbia's Novak Djokovic during their men's quarter final match of the Roland Garros 2015 French Tennis Open in Paris on June 3, 2015. Pic/AFP
"At the end of the day, he's human and it's normal to have seasons like this," said world number one Djokovic. And it has been a poor season by Nadal's lofty standards. He came into the French Open ranked at seven in the world and without a European claycourt title for the first time in 10 years.
It was always likely to be a struggle after he underwent surgery on his appendix in November last year, which in turn followed a three-month absence to rest a wrist problem.
From his second round exit at Wimbledon, the 14-time Grand Slam title winner played just three more tournaments in 2014, missing the defence of his US Open title in the process.
"It's normal to have people questioning his game now. But if you need a reminder of who he is, just look at his career stats and Grand Slams that he has won," said Djokovic.
"That says enough about his quality as a player and a champion. He understands what he needs to do to come back and fight to be the best. This is not a big deal. He's 29 and still has years in front of him."
Nadal, who will likely slip out of the world top 10 next week for the first time since April 2005, is no stranger to rebuilding his often injury-scarred career. After losing in the second round at Wimbledon in 2012, he didn't play again for eight months due to knee tendinitis. His powers of recovery stunned his critics as he raced through 2013, winning another French Open and the US Open, just two of 10 titles he collected that season which ended with a 75-7 win/loss record.
Against all his major rivals, his record is still in the credit column. He leads Djokovic 23-21, although the Serb has claimed victory in six of their last seven meetings. He has a 23-10 advantage over Roger Federer, winning the last five and is 15-6 against Murray having come out on top in seven of their last 10 duels.
"I think Rafa will come back, it will take time," said Murray who faces Djokovic on Friday for a place in the French Open final. "He will need wins to build his confidence back up."
Murray says he empathises with Nadal after he too was written off last year when he was plagued by a back injury. "I was getting asked a lot of questions, it was the end, it was over," added Murray. Despite his 7-5, 6-3, 6-1 loss to Djokovic, which came on his 29th birthday, Nadal was adamant that he has plenty of gas left in the tank.
The likes of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall won the French Open after their 30th birthdays, but that was in the gentler 1960s and 1970s. When Andre Agassi won his 1999 Roland Garros title, he had just passed 29. If Nadal were to clinch a 10th Paris title in 2016, he will have already celebrated being 30.
"It's not a big surprise after a year where I didn't win enough," said Nadal. "I lost here in 2009, I lost in 2015. It's not the end. I hope to be back next year with another chance.
"I am going to come back next year, I will try and be competitive, try to be better prepared and try to arrive with confidence."