- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2011

PARIS (AP) - After one real struggle and a second inconsistent performance at the French Open, Rafael Nadal felt a lot better and played a lot better in the third round.

At last looking like the guy who’s dominated Roland Garros since 2005, the top-seeded Nadal bullied Antonio Veic of Croatia 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 Saturday, taking the final eight games. Nadal improved his career record at the French Open to 41-1 and moved closer to winning a sixth championship, which would tie Bjorn Borg for the most in tournament history.

“I improved in every aspect of my game. I was more aggressive; I made fewer mistakes. I think that at the moment, I have more control of the ball,” Nadal said. “I played very well on my forehand. I opened the court with my cross-court shots. I won points with my forehands. My backhand has improved quite a lot.”

Probably not the sort of thing his fourth-round opponent _ unseeded Ivan Ljubicic, who eliminated No. 16 Fernando Verdaco 6-3, 7-6 (6), 6-4 _ wants to hear. Especially because Ljubicic said Nadal’s been talking about his problems lately.

“There is no question that his confidence is shaken. You see him in the locker room. He’s saying it. He’s not hiding it. He’s just not feeling as comfortable as he was feeling last year. And even the matches he’s winning, he’s not dominating as much as he used to be,” said Ljubicic, a French Open semifinalist in 2006. “But we all know that the more (the) tournament progresses, he’s playing better tennis.”

That’s true: While Veic, a qualifier ranked only 227th, couldn’t have been expected to provide much of a test, Nadal had every reason to emerge from their match on Court Philippe Chatrier feeling good about his game.

The Spaniard accumulated a 28-10 edge in winners, hitting 17 from the forehand side alone. He played cleanly, too, making only 18 unforced errors. Nadal won the point 10 of the 12 times he went to the net. And he returned spectacularly, winning 40 of the 56 points served by Veic, and converting 9 of 10 break points.

“I did a few things much better than the previous days,” said Nadal, who emphasized that the way he played Saturday boosted his confidence.

In his opening match Tuesday, Nadal was pushed to five sets for the first time at the French Open but came back to beat John Isner of the United States. Then, on Thursday, Nadal was forced to erase eight set points after trailing 5-1 in the third against Pablo Andujar of Spain.

That subpar performance prompted Andujar to suggest that Nadal was “going through, perhaps, a period of doubt.”

Nadal needed a total of 7 hours, 19 minutes on court to get through those two victories, but conserved some energy by finishing off Veic in a little more than 1 1/2 hours.

It might have been even faster, actually, if not for Nadal’s propensity for taking his time between points, something that drew a warning from the chair umpire Saturday.

“The rule is the rule. If I am slow, I am slow. That’s what I can say,” he said. “No, no. If it’s time violation, it’s time violation. I have to go faster. That’s my fault.”

While he had no complaint there, Nadal did _ at a reporter’s prompting _ renew his calls for the ATP to change the tennis calendar to give players more chance to rest at the end of each season.

The tour’s plan to expand the next two offseasons from five to seven weeks is “not enough,” Nadal said. He’d prefer a break of two or 2 1/2 months between seasons, both for recovery and to try to fine-tune his game.

In the meantime, he tries to fix things along the way, and was pleased the way his efforts in practice Friday showed up in his match Saturday.

“Solutions don’t come from heaven. I mean, you can’t change everything in one day. And you know what? I had not forgotten how to play tennis for a week, but I played better today,” Nadal said. “I have more confidence, and that’s a major step forward for me.”

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