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Steve Flink: Rafa is Gathering Steam Heading to Paris

5/22/2012 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

When we had last seen Rafael Nadal during the Mutua Madrid Open, he was not really himself. Understandably dismayed by the slippery blue clay courts in that Spanish city, an apprehensive Nadal had squandered a 5-2, two service break lead in the third and final set, falling for the first time in fourteen career appointments with his countryman and fellow left-hander Fernando Verdasco, bowing out with uncharacteristic timidity in the round of 16. Nadal was a disgruntled figure, justifiably agitated by the treacherous controversial blue clay, ready to move past that jarring experience, eager to make amends in Rome.

In capturing his sixth Italian Open singles crown on the old, reliable and slower red clay, Nadal more than made up for his setback in Madrid. He did not concede a set in five matches, finishing off his week’s work commendably with impressive triumphs over Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and—most significantly—Novak Djokovic. Having now won three of his four clay court tournament appearances en route to Roland Garros, Nadal has reaffirmed for one and all his status as the prohibitive favorite at the French Open. He will approach the world’s premier clay court tournament in a decidedly better frame of mind this time around than he did a year ago, when he was still reeling from his only career losses on the dirt against the formidable Djokovic in the finals of both Madrid and Rome.

Nadal is riding remarkably high after cutting down Djokovic for the second straight time after a distressing seven match losing streak against the Serbian. When he had routed Djokovic 6-3, 6-1 in the final of Monte Carlo on April 22, there were extenuating circumstances for the world No. 1, who had lost his beloved grandfather only a few days earlier. In Monte Carlo, Djokovic was clearly devoid of his customary sparkle. Nadal played his finest brand of clay court tennis, and he would have been nearly impossible to beat that day—no matter what the circumstances or situation. But the stakes were considerably higher in many ways for this eagerly awaited collision in Rome. Djokovic had rounded into terrific form over the course of the week, taking apart Roger Federer in the semifinals with meticulous ground stroke execution in their first meeting since the 2011 U.S. Open.

Djokovic surely wanted to resume his recent mastery of Nadal, especially with Roland Garros just around the corner. He is, after all, determined to establish himself as the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to garner four major championships in a row. A win over Nadal in Rome would have put him in good stead, and rekindled some of the inner fire he displayed so unrelentingly a year ago. In 2011, Djokovic had won all seven tournaments he played leading up to Paris, where he was upended by Federer in a stirring, four set semifinal duel. Thus far in 2012, he has secured only two titles, although his week in, week out consistency has remained admirable. Djokovic could hardly have been more motivated for a final round clash against his premier rival in Italy.

And yet, Nadal was the man who carried himself with a deeper sense of resolve, purpose and conviction in the rain delayed Monday final at Rome. The Spaniard shares the men’s record at Roland Garros with Bjorn Borg at six singles championships, and would like nothing better than to stand alone in that category after this year’s festivities. For Nadal, a loss to Djokovic so close to the French Open would have dampened his spirits at the worst possible time; in many ways, he could not afford a loss to the Serbian on the clay with so much riding on the outcome. Both players were well aware that this was an opportunity that needed to be seized, a moment to be captured, an opening to be exploited.

Out of the gates came these two great players, clashing for the third time in 2012, confronting each other for the ninth time across the last 14 months. Nadal looked to gain the upper hand early. Probing incessantly to find a few minor chinks in Djokovic’s shining armor, releasing his ground strokes off both sides with good depth and remarkable aggression, Nadal went to 15-40 on Djokovic’s serve in the opening game of the match. A trademark inside-out forehand winner took Nadal to double break point. But Djokovic retaliated boldly, saving the break points with an effortless two-handed backhand crosscourt winner, a dipping backhand pass at Nadal’s feet that was unanswerable, and a pair of service winners to hold on gamely for 1-0.

But Nadal was imperturbable. A year ago, mired in the web of his debilitating losing streak against Djokovic, confounded about his predicament, essentially down on himself, Nadal might have let a missed chance like that linger for too long in his mind. But, as the Spaniard would put it himself, he has “the calm” back now, and he simply got on with the task at hand. Nadal held on at 30 for 1-1. Both men held to make it 2-2, and then the Spaniard found his range. With Djokovic serving in the fifth game, Nadal could sense some inner turmoil from the Serbian, who missed a routine forehand down the line long and then bungled an overhead off a short, low trajectory backhand down the line lob from Nadal. Djokovic recovered to make it 30-30, but Nadal pitted his primary strength against Djokovic’s, lacing a forehand crosscourt into the two-handed backhand territory of his adversary. Djokovic missed his best shot to trail break point, but made it back to deuce when Nadal went for a forehand down the line winner but was considerably off the mark.

The next point showcased Nadal at his very best, and it was in many ways indicative of the entire match. Nadal’s defense was magnificent. He retrieved one penetrating shot after another off the racket of Djokovic, until the Serbian drove a backhand long down the line. At break point down, Djokovic sent a backhand drop shot down the line, but Nadal anticipated that shot astutely, moving forward swiftly to drive a backhand crosscourt winner into the clear. Nadal was leading 3-2, having drawn first blood with his service break in the fifth game. He had outplayed Djokovic significantly over the first five games. But Djokovic gathered all of his resources after that changeover, and imposed himself in a manner that was arduous for Nadal to combat.

With Nadal serving at 3-2, 30-30, Djokovic kept his opponent regularly on the run, and pinned the Spaniard well behind the baseline. Nadal drove a two-hander long. Down break point, Nadal was pushed back again by the depth of Djokovic, and the Spaniard erred on an inside-out forehand. It was 3-3, and Djokovic’s outlook was briefly altered. He held at love for 4-3, missing only one first serve in that game, keeping Nadal largely at bay. Djokovic had collected eight of the last ten points, and the weight and accuracy of his shots was giving Nadal cause for consternation.

A critical moment occurred with Nadal serving at 3-4, 30-30. In a bruising, 24 stroke backcourt exchange, Nadal was under siege, chasing down a barrage of big shots from the Serbian. At the end of the rally, Nadal scraped back a sliced forehand crosscourt, leaving the shot precariously short. Djokovic lined up the inside-in forehand to the open court, but drove it long. Djokovic made it to deuce, but Nadal held on with temerity for 4-4. Djokovic promptly surged to 5-4, holding at 15 with a couple of unstoppable first serves and an excellent approach shot that provoked an errant backhand pass from the Spaniard. And so Nadal was serving to save the set in the tenth game.

At 4-5, 30-30, Djokovic was in control of a crucial rally. He cracked an inside-out forehand that clipped the sideline, but the linesman erroneously called it wide. The umpire overruled, so the point had to be replayed. That mishap was very unfortunate for Djokovic. By no means was he destined to win that all important rally, but he had Nadal on the run. Moreover, Nadal had missed his first serve. When they replayed the point, Nadal got his first serve in play, and Djokovic made a flagrant mistake off the backhand. Exasperated, he began talking to himself after that expensive error. At 40-30, Nadal made a terrific forehand half-volley pickup off a deep return from Djokovic, and the Serbian sent a forehand long. Nadal had stubbornly escaped, holding on for 5-5.

In the eleventh game, a determined Djokovic built a 40-15 lead, but did not exploit his opening. A backhand unforced error into the net followed by a netted forehand inside-in off a high ball allowed the Spaniard back to deuce. Nadal opportunistically took the next point in a compelling 33 stroke exchange, intelligently implementing a deep backhand slice that lured Djokovic into an inside-out forehand mistake. Nadal had reached break point. He then unexpectedly released a forehand drop shot down the line. That play threw Djokovic off guard. Nadal followed his drop shot in and read Djokovic’s crosscourt forehand reply. Nadal kept his next backhand down the line low, forced Djokovic to play an ineffective volley, and the Spaniard punched a backhand volley crosscourt past Djokovic for a winner. Serving for the set at 6-5, Nadal held at 15 with gusto. With typical gumption and ingenuity, he had salvaged a set that could easily have eluded his grasp.

The Nadal surge continued. At 30-30 in the opening game of the second set, Nadal went freely onto the offensive, keeping Djokovic off balance and on the run. And inside-out forehand opened up the court for an inside-in forehand from the Spaniard, who came forward to put away an overhead emphatically on the bounce. Unhesitatingly, Nadal sealed the service break on the next point, overwhelming Djokovic with a barrage of scorching forehands. Nadal won that rally with an inside-out forehand that provoked a forehand mistake from a beleaguered Djokovic. Nadal was up a set and a break, but Djokovic had not lost heart. He reached 0-40 on Nadal’s serve rapidly, but Nadal released a service winner, opened up the court and put away an overhead, and then arrived at deuce when Djokovic made an unprovoked error off the backhand.

Nadal had erased three break points in a row, but Djokovic quickly earned a fourth. Nadal saved that with an assertive forehand that Djokovic could not handle on his forehand side. A sparkling inside-out forehand winner took Nadal to game point, and he held on for 2-0 when Djokovic missed another two-hander. Nadal had secured no fewer than five games in a row. Despite serving a third double fault to make it deuce in the third game, Djokovic pluckily held on for 1-2 with some superb play off the forehand. In the fourth game, Djokovic earned two more break points. On the first, the Serbian approached on the Nadal backhand. The Spaniard kept the passing shot reasonably low, and Djokovic awkwardly steered a forehand drop volley wide down the line. Nadal scrambled magnificently on the second break point, which Djokovic lost on a netted forehand inside-in. Despite connecting on only 6 of 12 first serves, Nadal held on for 3-1.

Thereafter, Nadal was unstoppable. After Djokovic held at 30 for 2-3, Nadal returned the favor by holding at 30 for 4-2 with an un-returnable first serve to the forehand. Djokovic closed the gap to 4-3 with a strong service hold at 15, closing that game with a forehand winner down the line. But Nadal could virtually taste the tonic of victory. He held at 15 for 5-3, closing that game with a dazzling backhand topspin lob winner down the line. It was all flowing for Nadal now. Djokovic moved to 40-30 in the ninth game, but Nadal’s extraordinarily deep return elicited an error from the Serbian. Djokovic admirably played a serve-and-volley point at deuce, and his wide serve was too much for Nadal to handle.

Djokovic thus earned a second game point, but Nadal was unswerving. The Spaniard’s return was virtually on the baseline and Djokovic was stymied. At deuce, Nadal’s backhand slice seemed to clip the baseline and bounced irregularly, leading to another Djokovic error. Match point down, Djokovic double faulted into the net. Nadal had outplayed Djokovic across the board. He broke his opponent four times and lost his own serve only once, saving six of seven break points in the process. Nadal won 57% of his second serve points while Djokovic was at 37% in that crucial department. Meanwhile, Djokovic made 41 unforced errors across the two sets while Nadal committed only 21. With this latest victory, Nadal now leads 18-14 in his career head-to-head series with Djokovic.

Beyond the statistics, Nadal played a much better tactical match than Djokovic. His defense was far superior. Nadal hardly missed a backhand the entire match, while Djokovic erred surprisingly often off that side. The Spaniard also returned with much more consistency than Djokovic. Nadal was at his masterful best on his favorite surface, extending rallies obstinately that should have been over, shifting from defense to offense in a flash, maneuvering Djokovic whenever possible but counter-attacking beautifully the rest of the time. Some of his open stance saves off the forehand were nothing less than stupendous. Yet he wasted no openings to seize the initiative as well, controlling as many points as possible with the severity and precision of his incomparable forehand. His intelligence and instincts were unerring.

In the semifinals, Nadal was pushed to the hilt in the opening set by his compatriot David Ferrer, who had given him such a difficult time in the final of Barcelona. Nadal was under duress from the outset, saving seven break points before holding for 1-1 in the second game of the match, then losing his delivery to go 3-1 down. Nadal broke back in the fifth game but had to save another break point at 3-4. On they went to a tie-break, and Ferrer built a 3-1 lead in that sequence, only to net a backhand drop shot from too far back in the court. Ferrer saved one set point at 5-6 but at 6-6 Nadal chased down a drop volley from his countryman and passed him cleanly off the backhand. A punishing inside-out forehand from Nadal on the following point sealed the set for the Spaniard, who then routed a disconsolate Ferrer to garner a 7-6(6), 6-0 triumph.

Djokovic and Federer squared off in the second semifinal under the lights. Djokovic was exceptionally sharp in the early stages, his returns buzzing back uncomfortably fast at Federer, his serve landing with bite and precision wherever he wanted it, his ground game operating at peak efficiency. For his part, Federer was ill at ease, perhaps overtaxed after winning Madrid the previous week. He was not extending with customary elasticity on his serve, connecting with only 49% of his first serves in the match. His ground strokes looked ragged at times, and Djokovic fully exploited Federer’s vulnerability.

Djokovic broke Federer in the third and seventh games, sweeping to a 6-2 first set triumph, winning 18 of 26 points on his own serve without facing a break point. At 3-3 in the second set, Federer was broken, injuring himself decidedly with three unforced errors in that game. Djokovic served for the match at 5-4 and had a match point, which Federer saved with a vintage inside-out forehand winner. Djokovic had not faced a break point in the entire match, but now he did, and the world No. 1 gave it away with a forehand unforced error.

And yet, Djokovic gathered himself with professionalism for the tie-break. He raced to a 3-0 lead and never lost a point on his serve, taking the sequence 7-4, winning the match 6-2, 7-6 (4) to close the gap in his career series to 14-11 for the Swiss. In stark contrast to the final, Djokovic made only 20 unforced errors while Federer was guilty of 42.

Now the players will shift their complete focus to Roland Garros, and all signs point toward another Nadal triumph. He has lost only one match in his seven appearances at the sport’s clay court shrine, falling in the round of 16 against Robin Soderling in 2009. Moreover, he has dominated this clay court season, winning 16 of 17 matches. He did not drop a set in his three tournament wins at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. In many ways, this reminds me of the way he approached the 2008 and 2010 French Opens. In 2008, he captured Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Hamburg; in 2010, he was victorious at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid. And at the French Open in each of those years, Nadal claimed the crown majestically without losing a set. It would be a tall task for Nadal to replicate that feat this year, but he will inevitably crush most of his opponents and preserve energy for his last couple of rounds.

Meanwhile, Djokovic still took something of value away from Rome. He played five more matches, turned in a sparkling performance against Federer, and did not play a bad final: Nadal was simply too good when it counted. I fully expect Nadal to seal that seventh crown in Paris, but the view here is that Djokovic is probably the only player who could stop Nadal on the red clay in Paris, although his prospects are not that bright. He will be very hard pressed to stop the Spaniard in a best of five set clay court contest. Nadal did himself a big favor by winning Rome because he has now reclaimed the No. 2 world ranking, with Federer back at No. 3. That means Nadal can only meet Djokovic in the final, which is the way it should be, and the way Nadal would like it to be. Nadal’s battles with Djokovic are the toughest physical tests he faces in tennis.

Federer, meanwhile, will not be that disappointed by his semifinal departure in Rome. With his tournament triumph in Madrid and a decent run in Rome, he played nine matches over those two weeks, which will leave him confidently well prepared for Roland Garros. Remarkably, the 2009 Roland Garros victor has lost to only two players over the last seven years, bowing five times to Nadal and once to Robin Soderling (in 2010). He will be in the mix again. But this much is certain: after his nearly immaculate play in Rome, after claiming three more clay court titles this spring, after clipping Novak Djokovic two times in a row, the feeling grows that Rafael Nadal is on his way to an eleventh major title triumph in a few weeks.