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Steve Flink: Nadal Ends Difficult Year On His Terms

12/5/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

There he was, back on his beloved clay courts at home in Seville, Spain, representing his nation in the Davis Cup Final against Argentina. It had been a long and debilitating 2011 campaign for a perfectionist who had won only three tournaments across the season, taking them all on clay, most significantly ruling for the sixth time at Roland Garros. But Rafael Nadal did not win another tournament for the rest of 2011. Despite reaching the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, it had not really been his kind of year. By the time he arrived in London for the Barclays ATP World Tour finals Thanksgiving week, Nadal was a beleaguered figure, his competitive sparkle largely gone, his intensity sorely diminished. The listless Spaniard failed to reach the semifinals in London.

But once he returned home to Spain, Nadal realized that his native fans were counting on him to recover his zest, rise majestically to another big occasion, and end the year by giving them precisely what they wanted. Nadal did just that, toppling Juan Martin Del Potro 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (0) to lifting Spain to a 3-1 triumph over Argentina. To be sure, the deep strains of the season gone by were apparent as Nadal had to work inordinately hard to put his nation across the finish line. Nadal approached this critical encounter having won 28 Davis Cup sets in a row, having never lost in 15 previous singles contests when representing his nation, carrying an enviable 19-1 record overall in Cup competition. His lone defeat occurred long ago, against Jiri Novak of the Czech Republic back in 2004. Since then, he had twice spearheaded final round victories for the Spaniards in Davis Cup, at the end of that same season in 2004 against the U.S., and again two years ago.

And yet, despite crushing Juan Monaco 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 with consummate professionalism on opening day, he found himself in a harrowing skirmish with an unflinching Del Potro. The 6’6”, 23-year-old had endured a bruising five set loss at the hands of David Ferrer two days earlier, toiling for well over four-and-a-half hours before dropping that showdown. The 2009 U.S. Open champion had wrist surgery in 2010 and only played three tournaments that year, falling to a year-end status of No. 257 after concluding 2009 at No. 5. But he climbed back admirably to No. 11 at the end of this season, approaching yet not equaling the high standards he set two years ago.

Del Potro had lost both of his meetings with Nadal in 2011, falling in straight sets on the hard courts at Indian Wells, bowing in four hard fought sets on the grass at Wimbledon. On the clay, Nadal seemed primed to handle Del Potro comfortably to clinch victory for Spain. But Del Potro came out blazing at the outset. He has the best flat forehand in tennis, and there is nothing he can’t do off that side. It is the single biggest forehand in the sport, and he was hurting Nadal considerably by going down the line, inside-out and inside-in. Moreover, the towering Argentine was exploiting every short ball off the Nadal forehand and driving his two-handed backhand down the line, approaching forcefully with that shot. After losing his serve in the opening game of the match, Del Potro captured six games in a row to seal the set.

Nadal had a game point for 2-0, only to miss a forehand down the line marginally long. Del Potro broke back, held at 30 for 2-1, and then broke Nadal at 30 for 3-1. Nadal was unnerved by the avalanche of scorching shots that Del Potro was sending his way. The Spaniard had two break points in the fifth game. He miss-hit a backhand return out on one of them, and Del Potro was the beneficiary of a forehand winner off the net cord on the other. Del Potro needed the first set a lot more than Nadal did, and he was making a slow clay court look fast with his mighty ball striking. Nadal had cause for his consternation.

Del Potro held on for 4-1, but he was not taking his foot off the accelerator. Nadal was down 0-40 in the sixth game, fought his way back to deuce, but could not hold on. On his fourth break point, Del Potro converted as Nadal was wildly off the mark with an inside-out forehand. In the following game, Del Potro went behind 0-40 but held on for the set after four deuces. A disconcerted Nadal had no way to impose himself at this stage. At set point down, he tried a backhand drop shot down the line, but the Argentine laced a two-hander crosscourt for a winner. Del Potro had taken what should have been a closer set and put it into his victory column decisively.

His surge continued. Nadal was broken at love to start the second set. He had still not held his serve in the match. Del Potro was up a set and a break, and swiftly advanced to 1-0, 40-0.  But an obstinate Nadal refused to miss a ball for the rest of that game, breaking back for 1-1. In the third game, the Spaniard was down break point but rescued himself with an ace down the T. Too often until then, he had telegraphed his intentions by serving to the backhand in both the Deuce and Ad courts. Nadal was not getting enough velocity on his serve, and his location left a lot to be desired. But that clutch ace to save the break point seemed to restore Nadal’s faith in himself. He knew he could have easily been behind 3-0 and two service breaks; instead he was up 2-1 on serve.

Gradually, Del Potro lost some of his range, while Nadal gained depth, pace and consistency off both sides. At 3-4, Nadal had a break point, but his anxiety was still evident as he pulled a forehand inside-in that landed wide. Del Potro made it to 4-4. But with Del Potro serving in the tenth game, Nadal pounced. He broke at 30, driving a penetrating forehand down the line to set up a bounce smash winner. It was one set all. Nadal was emboldened, by both his euphoric Spanish fans and his own markedly improved play.

The Spaniard’s momentum was almost tangible. He broke Del Potro for a 2-0 third set lead. From deuce in that game, he released consecutive forehand down the line winners. He was soaring now, while a depleted Del Potro wavered. In sweeping through the set 6-1, Nadal won 16 of 17 points on serve, controlling the tempo from the baseline with his trademark forehand. Del Potro was no longer containing Nadal, who was constructing points the way he wanted, picking his opponent apart, often prolonging the rallies.

Nadal collected eight of nine points on his way to 2-0 in the fourth set. He had won ten of eleven games to get there. He seemed certain to move inexorably toward a commanding victory. But a vociferous contingent of Argentine fans caused a brief delay before Del Potro served the third game of the set, urging him on, forcing both players to wait while they made their sentiments known.

Del Potro—suddenly reinvigorated—got the message. He held at love, then broke Nadal for 2-2 as the Spaniard’s anxiety suddenly resurfaced. At break point down in that fourth game, Nadal made a glaring forehand inside out unforced error. The highly charged Del Potro released a pair of crackling winners, and when Nadal faltered again off the forehand, the Argentine was up 40-15, on the verge of a 3-2 lead. But he missed consecutive running forehands. Nadal would come back to break him with controlled backcourt aggression.

Nadal had seemingly halted Del Potro’s progress, but remarkably Del Potro broke back at love for 3-3. Nadal’s baffling forehand insecurity remained, and Del Potro’s ground game was gathering steam. Del Potro held at love for 4-3, jumping joyously and skipping to the changeover after a blockbuster running forehand down the line winner. Nadal was back at Del Potro’s mercy. The Argentine was blasting him off the court, and Nadal was back on his heels again. In the eighth game, Nadal was serving at 30-40 when Del Potro came after him at full force, approaching down the line off the backhand, putting away a backhand volley with panache.

Del Potro had won five of six games, twice coming back from a break down. Now he was serving for the set at 5-3. He reached 30-15, but missed a risky forehand down the line, and then tamely double faulted into the net. Nadal was at break point, and he sealed it spectacularly. Del Potro came up to the net, and the Spaniard hit a low pass crosscourt off the backhand. Del Potro’s volley was solid, but Nadal took that one on the forehand, and sent another passing shot crosscourt off the forehand. Del Potro tried a backhand angled drop volley, but Nadal read it early, scampering forward to pass Del Potro down the line. The Spaniard held quickly at love for 5-5, and then broke Del Potro at 30 for 6-5 with a solid and purposeful game.

Nadal was serving for the match at 6-5, but he drifted to 15-40 with too much passivity. He saved one break point with a sparkling backhand pass up the line, but Del Potro broke back for 6-6 on the next point with a thundering forehand inside-in winner. They moved into a tie-break. On the first point of that critical sequence, Del Potro went for one of his patented flat backhand crosscourt winners, and narrowly missed it. Nadal followed with a clean winner off the forehand, then another forehand winner off the net cord. He was at 3-0, and never looked back, sweeping through the tie-break without the loss of a point, closing out the encounter with one last forehand winner up the line. Nadal had won 1-6, 6-4, 6-1, 7-6 (0). Spain had captured the Davis Cup for the fifth time in their storied history, with all of those triumphs taking place since 2000.

Nadal, of course, had put the Spaniards out front at 1-0 the first day with his emphatic 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 win over Monaco, who replaced David Nalbandian. That match was never in doubt. Nadal won the last six games of the first set with growing assurance. From 1-1 in the second, he took five games in a row, and then from 2-2 in the third he did not lose another game. Monaco was stepping inside the baseline, probing as much as possible to rush Nadal into mistakes. The strategy simply did not work. Nadal was near the top of his clay court game. His defense was far too good for the overexcited Monaco.

That set the stage for the pivotal contest between Ferrer and Del Potro. Ferrer kept Del Potro at bay across the first set, out-maneuvering his opponent with his consistency and guile from the baseline. Ferrer took that set 6-2. But Del Potro found his rhythm in the second set, moving ahead 4-2. Ferrer drew level at 4-4. On they went to a tie-break. Del Potro won that sequence, 7-2. Ferrer fell behind 3-0, making two unforced errors off the backhand in that stretch, never recovering.

Ferrer reasserted himself at the start of the third, building a 3-1 lead. But Del Potro captured five games in a row from there, taking the set 6-3, gaining a two sets to one advantage. Del Potro overwhelmed Ferrer with a succession of crackling forehands, settled into a groove from the backcourt, and took Ferrer out of the tactical conversation. At 1-1 in the fourth, Del Potro had a crucial break point, but Ferrer erased it with a delicate forehand drop volley that elicited a netted backhand passing shot from the Argentine. Del Potro lost his serve in the following game—double faulting at break point down—but he broke back in the following game, held at love for 3-3, stayed on serve until 4-4.

But Ferrer—two games away from a four set loss—stood his ground steadfastly. He held at 30 for 5-4, then reached double set point with Del Potro serving in the tenth game at 15-40. Del Potro aced Ferrer to make it 30-40, but then double faulted. It was two sets all, and Ferrer—buoyed by the Spanish audience—was fresher than his adversary. From 1-1 in the fifth, he collected four straight games. Del Potro took two games in a row, but the Spaniard’s cushion was too substantial. He won 6-2, 6-7 (2), 3-6, 6-4, 6-3. At match point, an exhausted and discouraged Del Potro did not bother to chase an inside-in forehand from an exultant Ferrer. Del Potro’s losses to both Ferrer and Nadal were heartbreakers for him, but he was a gallant loser in both cases. The big man will secure some very important wins in 2012.

The next day, Argentina took apart Spain in the doubles. Nalbandian and the appealing Eduardo Schwank defeated the all left-handed tandem of Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Schwank played the Deuce Court with Nalbandian on the Ad side, while Verdasco was the Deuce Court Spanish player with Lopez handling the Ad Court duties. The Argentines broke Lopez for a 3-2 first set lead and made it count, with Schwank serving out the set from deuce at 5-4.

Nalbandian and Schwank bolted to 5-1 in the second set, and glided home from there. Nalbandian returned with customary authority, and Schwank was able to stay back frequently on serve as his partner crossed ably for him at the net. Meanwhile, Verdasco was of no value whatsoever for Lopez at the net, and on his own serve Verdasco was always under duress. Neither Spaniard returned well, especially Lopez. Spain was thoroughly outplayed. Argentina remained in contention, allowing Del Potro the opportunity to take his chances against the redoubtable Nadal.

In the end, of course, Nadal was a deserving victor. It was one of those career defining moments when he absolutely had to win. Spain might have still prevailed if a fifth match had been required, but that would have been dangerous territory for Ferrer, who is not the big match player that Nadal is. But for Rafael Nadal, the personal stakes were almost unbearably high. A loss to Del Potro on the red clay of Spain in a Davis Cup Final would have stayed with Nadal all through his upcoming off season. It would have wounded him deeply, cutting into the core of his confidence, leaving him in a state of despair after a year when Novak Djokovic dealt him six final round losses. Nadal had endured too many penetrating setbacks already in 2011, and he needed to close the curtain on his year with a triumph in a match of lasting value.

Nadal moved past his inner doubts and claimed victory, demonstrating once more that he is a man of immense class and character, reaffirming why he is a champion of the highest order.