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Steve Flink: Madrid triumph not achieved the way Nadal wanted

5/12/2014 7:00:00 PM

Rafael Nadal had opened his springtime clay court campaign with a surprising quarterfinal defeat at the hands of compatriot David Ferrer in Monte Carlo before bowing out in the same round at Barcelona against Nicolas Almagro. He had not lost to Ferrer on the dirt in a decade; Almagro had never beaten him in ten previous career appointments on all surfaces. Those setbacks left the estimable Nadal deeply concerned about how he was playing, who he is and what it would take to recover his conviction. Nadal approached the Mutua Madrid Open with the most cautious kind of optimism, hoping he could find some way to move past his jarring recent losses and reestablish his supremacy on his favorite surface with Roland Garros looming not too far ahead.

In the end, Nadal did manage to capture the Madrid crown for the fourth time in his storied career, and the third time on clay. He defended his title, and was the last man standing after Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer withdrew from the event and everyone else went by the wayside. And yet, the triumph was not all that uplifting for the Spaniard because his final round contest with the surging Kei Nishikori concluded with the injured Japanese competitor forced to retire at 0-3 down in the final set after thoroughly outplaying Nadal for the better part of two sets. Despite walking on court with a 0-6 career record against Nadal, the 24-year-old Japanese stylist played some of the most inspired tennis of his life to put himself within striking distance of a major upset victory over the man universally regarded as the best ever on clay.

Nishikori had never been in a final at an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament, and he had been stretched to his physical and emotional limits a day earlier before subduing David Ferrer in three exhilarating sets. Nishikori had been treated by trainers a number of times during that nearly three hour skirmish after requiring a trainer during his quarterfinal collision with Feliciano Lopez, and that was not an ideal way to head into a title round meeting against Nadal with so much riding on the outcome.

Be that as it may, Nishikori settled into a remarkable ground stroke rhythm swiftly and surely, leaving Nadal baffled and dazed, silencing the Spanish audience with a dazzling display of free-wheeling backcourt wizardry. For a set-and-a-half, Nishikori was in the zone with ceaseless and breathtaking ball striking. His timing and execution were as sound as could be, while Nadal was decidedly off key and out of sorts, perhaps caught off guard by the sustained authority of an adversary who had never shown him this unerringly aggressive recipe before.

It was an odd beginning. Nadal seemed to have utter control of the contest from the opening bell. He came blazing out of the blocks, holding serve at love for 1-0. He broke down Nishikori’s more vulnerable forehand wing in that game and the Japanese man seemed severely restricted in his movement, looking particularly inept and uncomfortable as he ran wide for the forehand. Nadal then took a 0-30 lead in the second game, having swept the first six points of the final round confrontation. Although Nishikori rallied to 30-30, Nadal made it to break point with a scorching inside out forehand allowing him to venture forward to produce a winner at the net.

Here was Nadal with a break point for 2-0, ready to impose himself quickly, eager to grab a crucial early service break. Nishikori sent a well placed first serve down the T, but Nadal should have made the backhand return. Instead, he steered it wide. Nishikori escaped with some bold hitting to reach 1-1, and right then and there the first set was fundamentally reshaped. Nadal significantly lost his bearings, Nishikori thoroughly found his range, and suddenly the color of the match was altered radically. Serving in the third game, Nadal opened with an inexplicable forehand unforced error into the net. At 15-15, he double faulted and then the Spaniard was off target with an inside-out forehand. Down 15-40, Nadal saved one break point, but on the following point Nishikori recovered admirably after Nadal moved him methodically from side to side. Shifting ably from defense to offense, Nishikori seized the initiative, coming forward to angle a high backhand volley deftly crosscourt that Nadal could not counter.

It was 2-1 for Nishikori and he was not looking back. He raced to 40-0 in the fourth game, double faulted and then held at 15 on a miss-hit errant return from Nadal. Nishikori was more relaxed and confident with every passing point while Nadal was in a strangely foggy state of mind. With Nadal serving in the fifth game, Nishikori kept the Spaniard off balance before releasing a backhand drop shot winner, and then laced an inside out winner off the forehand for 0-30. Nadal rallied to 30-30, only to double fault wide down the T. To be sure, Nishikori’s backhand return was spectacular and intimidating at this stage of the match, but Nadal could not afford to give away a point of that importance. A superb inside out forehand return from Nishikori at 30-40 off a second serve was unanswerable. Nishikori had a commanding 4-1, double service break lead.

Nadal was not precisely sure what had hit him. Nishikori was sprinkling the court with winners, making very few unprovoked mistakes, and ruthlessly finishing off points with a dangerous brand of aggression. His tactical acuity was striking. Nishikori held at 15 for 5-1, and nearly broke Nadal a third time when the top seed served in the seventh game. The Spaniard was down set point, but saved it with a strategically placed wide serve setting up a crosscourt backhand that drew the error from Nishikori. Nadal held on for 2-5 but Nishikori was unrelenting, on song and largely unconscious, holding at 15 with an ace to close out the set. The 6-2 verdict was startling yet richly deserved.

The second set commenced with little having changed in the proceedings; Nishikori was masterful from the baseline while Nadal remained slightly unhinged under the circumstances. Nishikori got the immediate break in the opening game. After Nadal made an unforced error off the backhand, Nishikori opened up off both wings and fired away freely. A backhand winner down the line behind Nadal took Nishikori to 0-30 and a brilliantly constructed point ended with Nishikori lining up an inside out forehand that drew a forehand down the line mistake from the harried Spaniard. It was 0-40. Nadal saved one break point but Nishikori was having an extraordinary day on the forehand side. An inside out winner off that Nishikori wing at 15-40 sealed the break for 1-0.

Nadal sensed he had to make his move at once, and he surged to 0-40, triple break point in the second game. On the first break point he missed a forehand return off a second serve from the ad court as he ran around his backhand. Nishikori released an ace for 30-40 and then Nadal missed a routine forehand return off a second serve, badly bungling that shot into the net. Nishikori moved to 2-0. Nadal had squandered a glaring opportunity, but he did not despair. In the third game he held at 15 with an ace down the T. Nishikori was gradually losing steam. Serving at 2-1, he led 40-0 but dropped three points in a row, the last with a double fault. Nevertheless, he held on for 3-1 before Nadal served another impressive game, holding at 15 with an ace down the T for 2-3. Nishikori, however, was undismayed. He held at 15 for 4-2 with an ace of his own.

Nadal realized he was only one break down, and now he was serving decidedly better than he had in the opening set. He connected with four first serves in a row for 3-4, holding at love, delivering another ace for 40-0 with stunning accuracy down the T. Nishikori called for the trainer at the changeover after the seventh game, and had his back rubbed. He seemed badly restricted on his delivery when he returned, unable to extend and hit it at anywhere near full force, although his ground game remained potent. Nadal charged to 15-40, but Nishikori was taking bold gambles and pulling them off. A forehand drop shot winner made it 30-40 and then a crackling backhand down the line took him to deuce.

The Japanese player was theoretically only six points away from the single biggest victory of his career, but he netted a forehand down the line in an ill-fated attempt at making a quick winner. Down break point for the third time in that game, Nishikori had control of the rally but Nadal defended skillfully off his forehand, going deep down the line. Nishikori tried a forehand down the line off that shot, but unluckily his ball struck the net cord and bounded long. Nadal was buoyant. He had broken back for 4-4, and, more importantly, it seemed almost certain that he had broken Nishikori’s spirit. Nadal made all four first serves in the ninth game, sending each and every one to the backhand. Nishikori could not get even one of those returns back into play. It was 5-4 for the Spaniard.

Once more, Nishikori called for the trainer and took an injury timeout. He managed to recoup from 0-30 to 30-30 in the tenth game, but Nadal took the next two points to seal the set 6-4, making it one set all. Nishikori left the court after the conclusion of the set, presumably for more treatment on the lower back. But Nishikori was fundamentally spent and compromised, while Nadal was now unstoppable. Nadal held at love for 1-0 in the third set and then broke at 15 for 2-0 as Nishikori went for winners that were not in the cards. He really had no other alternative. Nadal opened the third game with an ace down the T and held briskly at love for 3-0. He had won 12 of 13 points in this three game blitz, and had collected seven games in a row. Nishikori went to his chair at the changeover, contemplated whether or not he should continue, and then surrendered, shaking the victor’s hand.

Clearly, Nishikori had a difficult decision to make. He was not going to win; his opportunity was over and his body was betraying him alarmingly. Perhaps he could have stayed on court for three more games, even if he would have only been going through the motions. He should have done that. But, in the final analysis, it hardly mattered because either way the Japanese man was out of physical luck. He needed to finish off a below par Nadal 6-2, 6-3 and get off the court in a hurry, but once Nadal got his teeth into the contest in the eighth game of the second set to make it 4-4, the match was essentially over. It was just about as simple as that. Nadal was one fortunate fellow to get out of a terrible bind on a disconcerting day, but he prevailed in the end for two reasons: his renowned resilience and Nishikori’s flagrant fragility.That Nishikori even made it to the final was a tribute to his emotional maturity and growing self-assurance. In his compelling, hard fought and remarkably well played semifinal against an unrelenting Ferrer, Nishikori could well have lost the first set, and would then probably have bowed out in the end. Ferrer was in very good shape, and poised to move out in front. Nishikori looked vulnerable off the forehand with the wind at his back. He could not control his shots consistently in the early stages, and Ferrer was the better man from the backcourt. The 32-year-old Spaniard took a commanding 5-2 first set lead, and served for the set at 5-3.

Until that juncture, Ferrer had won 16 of 19 points on serve. But from 15-30 at 5-3, he made a pair of costly unforced errors off the backhand to get broken at the worst possible time. The opportunistic Nishikori eventually took that set seven points to five in a tie-break, coming through admirably in the clutch. Ferrer broke to establish a 4-3 second set lead, but Nishikori struck back boldly, took two games in a row, and had a match point with Ferrer serving in the tenth game. The Spaniard propitiously released an ace down the T and held on gamely for 5-5. The Spaniard sealed that set 7-5 after winning back to back strenuous games, and on the two warriors went to a third and final set.

Nishikori was seen by the trainer on court after the second set, as had been the case at the 5-4 changeover. His back was troubling him, and the thought of a long lasting final set must have been daunting for him. But Nishikori cast aside a couple of break points against him at 2-2 in the third, held on, broke, and then held again. Improbably, he had a 5-2 final set lead, but Ferrer absolutely never surrenders, no matter how bleak his prospects. Ferrer held on in the eighth game and then Nishikori served for the match at 5-3. He surged to 40-0, triple match point in his favor. Ferrer, however, would not let go. Nishikori netted a forehand down the line, sent a backhand crosscourt into the net, and then found the net again with a backhand down the line.

The Spanish audience was delirious. The score was deuce. The fun was far from over. Ferrer had a couple of break points that Nishikori erased with a service winner and a forehand winner. Nishikori moved to match point for the fourth time in that game, but could not clear the net again with an inside in forehand. He garnered another match point, only to net a forehand crosscourt, and then served an ace out wide to make it to match point again. Going for broke once more, Nishikori erred on an inside out forehand. Ferrer had another break point, but Nishikori wiped it away with an ace down the T. The Spaniard reached break point for the fourth time, but Nishikori answered bravely with a service winner. Nishikori arrived at match point again, only to double fault long. He fashioned another match point, but lost a pulsating rally when he drove a forehand long.

It was deuce for the tenth time in this critical, suspenseful and spectacular game. Despite all of his missed connections, Nishikori plodded on steadfastly. A service winner gave him a ninth match point of the game and a tenth altogether, and this time Nishikori would not be denied. Ferrer missed an inside out forehand. Nishikori had prevailed in just under three hours by scores of 7-6 (5), 5-7, 6-3. It was the match of the tournament, featuring stupendous rallies, superior athleticism, strategic savvy from both players and high caliber play in every way. Ultimately, of course, Nishikori paid a substantial price for not closing out Ferrer in straight sets. He knew somewhere deep in his soul that he was living on borrowed time. Ferrer had bruised him incalculably and Nishikori was fully aware of that.

Meanwhile, Nadal had seemed to restore his conviction and raise his morale over the course of the week. He opened his Madrid campaign by dropping only one game against Juan Monaco, gradually finding his range after an uneven first set. He took apart Jarkko Nieminen 6-1, 6-4, withstanding one briefly indifferent patch in the second set when he allowed his fellow lefty back to 3-3 after opening up a 3-0 lead. In the quarterfinals, he was superb against Tomas Berdych, eclipsing the big man for the 17th consecutive time in an emphatic 6-4, 6-2 triumph. He did not lose his serve in that encounter and his ball striking from the baseline was virtually letter perfect. In the semifinals, Nadal stopped Roberto Bautista Agut 6-4, 6-3. He should have conceded fewer games. Nadal led 3-1, 0-30 over his overmatched countryman in the first set but threw that second break opportunity away with unprovoked mistakes. He led 3-2, 40-30 but double faulted and lost his serve for 3-3.

After raising his game again to close out the first set and move to a 4-0 lead in the second set, Nadal had 15-40 in the fifth game and seemed on the verge of a 6-0 victory. He wandered off his game again and Bautista Agut took three consecutive games. Finally, from 4-3, Nadal restored order and took the last two games unhesitatingly. But perhaps that performance was illustrative that Nadal was still getting in his own way to a degree that he seldom does.

He plainly confronted an inspired adversary in the championship match. Nishikori affirmed that he deserves his new status as the No. 9 ranked player in the world. He had won 14 matches in a row before Nadal escaped in the final. Nishikori played tennis in that match that he had only dreamed about in days, months and years gone by. Nishikori has wisely pulled out of Rome this week and will try to heal his ailing body in time to go deep into the French Open draw. He is an alluring and arresting player and is to be commended for the progress he has made this year. It can be no accident that all of these good things have happened to him since Michael Chang joined his coaching team.

As for Nadal, it will be fascinating to follow him this week as he goes after an eighth Italian Open crown. To be sure, Nadal keeps making history of a high order. He now has captured 63 career singles championships, breaking a tie for seventh place with Guillermo Vilas for most titles won in the Open Era. He stands only one championship away from Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras, who are tied for fifth. On clay, Nadal now has collected 44 titles, only two shy of Vilas’s Open Era record on that surface. Nadal has now won 27 of 39 career Masters 1000 finals. Overall, he is 63-27 in final round duels. His stature is unassailable, his commitment to excellence ever apparent, his will to win second to no one in the history of his sport.

But Nadal would be the first to agree that history is a guide, yet not necessarily a destination. His Madrid triumph was more a matter of hanging around and exploiting an injured opponent than anything else. He needed to impose himself much sooner. Nadal knows he still has much work to do before turning his attention to securing a ninth crown at Roland Garros. In the meantime, he sorely needs to win with his clay court mastery, to succeed with a strong finish down the stretch in Rome, to remind himself once and for all that he did not become Rafael Nadal by accident.

It is time for Nadal to fully display his greatness on the red clay of Rome. It is a title he must win with clarity, conviction, timely aggression and brio. It is a tournament that could determine whether or not he succeeds in Paris. It is a place where he must perform up to his customarily high clay court standards. We will discover over the next bunch of days if Nadal is going to keep questioning himself despite all that he has done on his primary surface, or if he will be caught off guard again on a given day by a player of surprising explosiveness, ingenuity and deep resolve. I can’t wait to watch what happens.
Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.