You must be thinking I’m crazy. How can I say such a thing? But hear me out. Consider the fact that Nadal was in Federer’s half of the draw. Had Roger beaten Gulbis, there is a good probability that he would have made the semi-finals. Given the way Rafa has been playing of late, I think Roger would have really struggled to beat Rafa. Not only would that have made the already bad head-to-head record with Nadal even worse, but it would give Nadal another confidence boost going into the French Open, knowing that he got revenge for the loss in Madrid last year against Federer. There is also a good possibility that Federer would have been obliterated by Nadal had they met in the Rome semi-finals, and that would have been even worse for Federer. At least now he hasn’t given Nadal the chance to do that, and he has some more time to gain confidence.
Coming off two early round losses in North America certainly does not put him at the confidence level to face Nadal on clay either, and neither would the conditions in Rome help him against Nadal. Consider what happened last year. Roger lost his second match against Wawrinka in Monte Carlo and a lot was being made of it. Everyone thought he was down in the dumps, which he was. Yet he came back to make the semi-finals of Rome and then won Madrid, as well as the French Open. So clearly it is too early to make any conclusions from his loss to Gulbis, and as I said, it could well be a blessing in disguise. Nadal is now scheduled to play in Madrid, which means if Roger gets his act together, that he could have a rematch with Rafa in Madrid. If they happen to meet there, it will give Federer a much better chance to repeat what he did to Nadal last year.
He will have some more matches below his belt by then and Madrid is at altitude, giving him a better chance to win than he would have had in Rome. Rafa is scheduling wiser this year, and there is no doubt that he will be very difficult to beat this year on clay. But Roger has to give himself the best chance of beating Nadal. If he beats him again in Madrid, that will give him a mental boost going into the French Open. With Nadal in the form that he is in, Federer almost has to beat him in Madrid to get a mental edge before the French Open. If someone does not beat Nadal he will win each of the Masters Series events and go into the French Open with maximum confidence, and the clear favorite to win it once again. Federer can’t depend on someone else to do it for him either. He needs to bring his best game to Madrid and try to repeat what he did there last year at altitude.
At least that will put a certain amount of doubt in Nadal’s mind going into the French Open. If not, then Nadal is going to be extremely hard to beat there. Roger is now still in the doubles in Rome which he will be playing tomorrow against big serving Americans Querry and Isner. It would be interesting to see what happens there, but either way this is good match practice for Roger. Even though it’s doubles, it is still better than being on the practice court, and it will help Roger work on his attacking game on clay. After the doubles in Rome he heads over to Estoril, which is exactly the kind of tournament he needs now just to get some wins under the belt in singles and gain some confidence. That should get him ready for Madrid where he can make a serious run at the title like he did last year. The altitude suits him better there which should help as well.
So in the end I guess what I’m trying to say is that the loss against Gulbis is far from the end of the world, and it might even turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Last year everyone was worried about Federer’s form in the clay court season, yet he peaked exactly at the right time while Nadal and Djokovic burned themselves out. This time Nadal has taken measures to avoid the same thing happening, which will make it tough for Roger to defend his title. All he can do is give himself the best shot by peaking at the right time. He can only control what is under his control. Isn’t it amazing how you just can’t keep Roger off a tennis court of he wants to be there? I wouldn’t even be surprised if he wins the doubles with Allegro. The only way in which the loss against Gulbis will be a bad thing is if it means Roger won’t break Sampras’ record amount of weeks at number one.
In all other instances I see this loss as a good thing.