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Steve Flink: Nadal Claims a Crucial Triumph

4/22/2012 7:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It would not be hyperbolic to suggest that the growing chorus of skeptics has been entirely too tough on Rafael Nadal over the past ten months. As the indefatigable Spaniard headed to Monte Carlo for the Rolex Masters event on the red clay where he performs so majestically, many of the sport’s most avid enthusiasts were beginning to seriously question the man and his status. Nadal had not won a tournament since capturing his sixth French Open crown last June at Roland Garros, failing to secure a title in twelve appearances across the second half of 2011 and the early stages of 2012 despite reaching four finals and three semifinals in that span. Furthermore, he has been in the finals of the last three majors.

As one of the all-time great tennis players, the world No. 2 has set the bar of achievement exceedingly high, and he must live incessantly by the standards he has set. That is his plight, and Nadal clearly recognizes that the critics might scrutinize him to an aggravating degree, and yet they are being laudatory at the same time. But the most effective way of confronting the voices of negativity is to simply go out and win something of substantial value. Nadal did just that in Monte Carlo.

The inimitable left-hander made history of a high order once more, taking the prestigious Masters 1000 crown for the eighth consecutive year, a feat unmatched in the modern game at any tournament. Year after year, Nadal has taken on the best players in the world at Monte Carlo. To win that coveted event so many times in a row is a staggering feat. This time around, Nadal did not concede a set in five matches. He performed as masterfully as ever on his favorite surface. Most significantly, Nadal raised his career record against world No. 1 Novak Djokovic to 17-14 with an emphatic 6-3, 6-1 triumph in the final, ending a seven match losing streak against the Serbian in the process. It was the most lopsided victory he has ever recorded against his primary rival, and it could not have been timelier. He had not toppled Djokovic since they collided in London at the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in November of 2010. Not only had Djokovic bested Nadal in the championship matches at the last three Grand Slam events, but he had also clipped the Spaniard twice in clay court finals last spring without losing a set.

Given the significance of those numbers, this was a critical moment for Rafael Nadal as he ignited his 2012 clay court campaign. This is his time of the year. He thrives and flourishes on the dirt. It is his province. Each and every season since 2005, Nadal has ruled in Monte Carlo and used the victory in that showcase event as a launching pad toward other significant clay court successes. Only once—in 2009—did Nadal not conclude his European clay court season with a triumph at Roland Garros after being the champion in Monte Carlo. The historical significance of that pattern is surely not lost on Nadal. Of all his Monte Carlo tournament triumphs, this may well be the most important for the Spaniard.

Let’s examine his final round appointment with Djokovic. When the Serbian connected with three out of four first serves and held at love in the opening game, he seemed primed for this showdown. Djokovic kept the ball unfailingly deep in that game, refused to allow Nadal to take the initiative, and seemed in command. The conditions were arduous for both players with the wind blowing ferociously and even unpredictably at times. But, at the outset, it was Nadal who seemed more apprehensive than his opponent. Nadal was down 15-30 in the second game, but he aced Djokovic down the T, and followed with a pair of service winners, sending both of those first deliveries to the forehand side of Djokovic. Putting all six of his first serves in play, Nadal held on for 1-1, and then went to work with heightened intensity.

Djokovic built a 30-15 lead in the third game, but Nadal had found his range. After scampering around the court with remarkable speed and determination, Nadal laced his two-handed backhand up the line for a clean winner. From 30-30, Djokovic faltered badly, making an inside-out forehand unforced error before steering a backhand wide down the line. Nadal had the cushion he needed. He had the confidence he has sorely lacked across the last year against Djokovic. He had an inner belief that this was an opportunity he would not give away.

Although Nadal made only two of five first serves in the fourth game and served a double fault, he still held at 15 with yet another well located first serve to the forehand eliciting a netted chipped forehand return from an out of sorts Djokovic. Nadal had moved commandingly to 3-1, but Djokovic held at 30 in the fifth game as Nadal’s backhand drop shot sat up for the Serbian, who rolled his two-hander down the line to force an errant passing shot from the Spaniard. Nadal, however, was unflustered. He held at love for 4-2, pouring in four consecutive first serves and taking control from the backcourt. In the seventh game, Djokovic wasted a 40-15 lead and trailed break point. The Serbian gained the upper hand in the rally, moved forward purposefully, and provoked a forehand passing shot mistake from Nadal. Djokovic closed out that game with an impeccable backhand drop shot winner down the line. Nadal was still up a break, but could not afford a letdown.

At 4-3, Nadal held at 15 with two sparkling forehand winners and an ace out wide to the forehand in the deuce court. He was right where he wanted and needed to be, leading 5-3, exploiting an alarmingly off form Djokovic to the hilt. With Djokovic serving to save the set, Nadal pounced. He reached 15-40 by picking on Djokovic’s uncommonly fragile backhand, coaxing an error with a deep backhand down the line. After Djokovic saved a set point with a surprise serve-and-volley at 15-40 that caught Nadal off guard, the Spaniard came through on the following point with another rolled backhand down the line drawing an error from the Serbian.

Nadal had played a terrific first set, breaking twice, winning 16 of 20 points on his own serve, conducting the rallies on his own terms to keep Djokovic oddly off balance. Nadal is as good a front runner as there is tennis with the exception of Djokovic, but he knew he had to maintain his level or perhaps even raise the stakes. In three of the seven straight losses he suffered at the hands of Djokovic, Nadal had captured the opening set, including their most recent epic encounter in the final of the Australian Open. Djokovic has made immense strides as a competitor. But on this occasion the Serbian seemed in emotional disrepair. He had lost his grandfather earlier in the week, and had been understandably preoccupied with the death of someone with whom he had grown remarkably close.

Djokovic had needed to rally from a set down to beat the free flowing Alexandr Dolgopolov in the round of 16. That match was locked at 4-4 in the final set before Djokovic took two games in a row to gain the victory. He then halted the gifted yet unpolished Robin Haase 6-4, 6-2 despite some inexplicable lapses. Djokovic lost his serve four times in that bizarre contest, and often looked as if he wanted to be anyplace other than at his office on the tennis court. A day later, Djokovic was up against Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. Berdych had come from behind to beat Andy Murray in a three set quarterfinal, playing his best tennis of 2012. Djokovic was up 4-2 in the first set of his meeting with Berdych, but lost four games in a row to drop that first set. The conditions for this contest were almost unbearably bad for both players, with the wind swirling in exasperating patterns and forcing both Djokovic and Berdych to compromise regularly. Djokovic gradually raised his game and stopped Berdych 4-6, 6-3, 6-2. During the last two sets, Djokovic seemed more like himself on the court, regaining his concentration, rousing himself, competing with customary vigor.

And yet, down a set against Nadal in the final, Djokovic fully understood that he was facing arguably the greatest clay court player in the history of the game. In the opening game of the second set, Nadal directed another first serve to the forehand in the deuce court, and Djokovic read it quickly, driving his return down the line for a winner. Djokovic sensed that an immediate service break at the start of the second set could alter the complexion of the match. But Nadal realized he needed to keep Djokovic off balance on his returns. After reaching 15-15, Nadal stifled Djokovic with three body serves in a row. Two of those deliveries were un-returnable and one set up a forehand winner for the Spaniard. He held at 15 for 1-0, and was off and running.

Nadal broke Djokovic at 30 in the second game, as the Serbian was off the mark with another two-handed backhand. Nadal held at love for 3-0 as Djokovic made four consecutive unforced errors. Nadal was the ultimate professional, defending steadfastly, dictating whenever possible, measuring every option astutely. But Djokovic was largely in disarray. In the fourth game, Nadal released back-to-back forehand inside-out forehand winners to break at 30 for 4-0. He had won 16 of 21 points to break the set wide open. Serving in the fifth game, Nadal was broken for the only time in the match. He missed three out of four first serves, and lost his serve at love. Djokovic opened that game with a forehand down the line return winner off a second serve, and Nadal hurt himself with a couple of unforced errors.

Djokovic had given himself a flicker of hope, but that was the extent of it. At 1-4, he was broken at love. At 0-30, he went to the serve-and-volley tactic, but Nadal instantly saw that play unfolding. The Spaniard drove a two-handed backhand return cleanly crosscourt for a winner, and then released a crackling inside-out forehand that was too much for Djokovic to handle. Nadal had the break at love for 5-1. Serving for the match, he held at 15 to seal the verdict, acing Djokovic at match point with the wide serve in the deuce court. It was a victory well earned, and a performance out of the top drawer from Nadal. Djokovic played abysmally in many ways, but even at his zenith he would have been hard pressed to stop an unwavering and flawless Nadal on this particular day.

Both men greeted each other with genuine warmth at the net. Nadal was fittingly understated yet clearly exhilarated, and Djokovic was commendable, looking his opponent in the eye and congratulating Nadal graciously. Both players are a great credit to the game, a pair of admirable sportsmen, and two extraordinary individuals. The hope here is that Djokovic will gain the growing respect he deserves from those who have admired and preferred the immensely popular Nadal and Roger Federer for so long. Djokovic is worthy of a wider following out among the public, and one of these days he will be more deeply appreciated not only for his tennis but for his character.

In any event, Nadal was totally on his tactical game against Djokovic in Monte Carlo. He was probing throughout the battle, mixing up his patterns, refusing to let Djokovic control the climate of the match. Nadal succeeded handsomely by serving so frequently to Djokovic’s forehand, and then going into his opponent’s body. He earned a surprising number of free points on serve. Nadal’s topspin backhand down the line was excellent because he kept it deep with heavy spin, and the Spaniard had Djokovic guessing with his variation off the forehand. To be sure, Djokovic was not executing well off either side in the wind, and that eased Nadal’s task. Djokovic made 25 unforced errors in the 16 game match, while Nadal had only 10 unprovoked mistakes. Nadal won 85% of his first serve points while Djokovic was at only 40% in that category. Nadal took a remarkable 54% of his return points, while Djokovic won only 26% on the receiving end. Nadal simply outplayed his opponent across the board. He was guileful, mixing up his bigger shots with changes of pace and higher trajectory stuff. Djokovic self-destructed as Nadal kept him at bay.

My feeling is that this win will fuel Nadal considerably, but Djokovic will not dwell on his defeat. Nadal will no longer have to answer the questions of reporters who want him to explain why he can’t beat Djokovic, and that will remove layers of inhibition from the Spaniard and allow him to perform in a more unburdened manner in his upcoming contests with Djokovic. The two biggest clay court events leading up to the French Open will take place next month in Madrid and Rome. There is no reason why the game’s two top ranked players should not meet in at least one of those finals, and conceivably both. I am convinced that Djokovic will strike back with gusto at Nadal, and will continue to be a difficult problem for the Spaniard to solve. He will win the majority of their battles going forward. But the view here is that Nadal will be emboldened by his Monte Carlo triumph over Djokovic, and will capture his share of matches across the next couple of years against the Serbian.

The rivalry is reborn. Moreover, Rafael Nadal is revitalized, an invigorated competitor, a champion ready to celebrate another banner season on clay. With his latest win in Monte Carlo, he has collected a record 20 Masters 1000 crowns. He owns 47 career singles championships on the ATP World Tour, claiming 33 of those crowns on his beloved clay. Since the start of the 2005 season—the year he surged to No. 2 in the world—Nadal has won 209 of his 217 clay court matches. He is moving into a crucial stretch of events on the dirt, playing in Barcelona this week, going to Madrid and Rome in May, and then on to the shrine of red clay at Roland Garros, the magical place where the Spaniard has suffered only one defeat in his entire career.

Nadal will inevitably elevate his tennis markedly in the weeks ahead, but Djokovic will surely iron out the wrinkles in his game in the near future, and will be a different and decidedly better player by the middle of May. Nadal is back in the right mindset, eager to build on the platform of his Monte Carlo success, and capable of releasing a brand of tennis this year that might be the best we have ever seen from this charismatic performer. Monte Carlo was more than one isolated moment for Rafael Nadal. His gratifying win over Novak Djokovic was not just another triumph in a final. The Spaniard’s outlook has been sweepingly altered. The immediate stretch ahead will be exhilarating not only for the two best players in the world, but for all of us as well.