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Steve Flink: Nadal Reemerges

4/21/2008 8:07:00 PM

by Steve Flink

He had not won a tournament since Stuttgart in July of 2007. He had suffered his share of ego bruising losses since then, falling in four finals, bowing in a number of important semifinal appointments including a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Australian Open this year. He had not seemed entirely himself during this period, fighting hard but clearly lacking his essential emotional energy at crucial times. He remained the No. 2 ranked player in the world and he was winning a lot of matches, but his confidence seemed to be gradually evaporating.

But now, after capturing the Masters Series crown on clay in Monte Carlo for the fourth year in a row, after overcoming Roger Federer in the final of that event for the third straight time, after sweeping through an excellent field without losing a set in five matches, Nadal is right where he wants to be. The left-handed Spaniard is back on his favorite red clay court surface, rebuilding his game on the dirt, and reminding all of his adversaries that he has no intention of relinquishing his supremacy on the slow courts that suit him to the hilt. After enduring so many setbacks across the past nine months, it was no mean feat for Nadal to rule in Monte Carlo again so convincingly.

In many ways, he had an awful lot to lose last week. Had Nadal been beaten at any stage of that event, the critics would have been out in force, drowning him in a sea of skepticism. They would have magnified a defeat in Monte Carlo and suggested that Nadal was in a serious bind. They could have claimed that not winning an event he has owned since 2005 was evidence that the aura around Nadal might be swiftly fading, that he no longer commanded the same high level of respect among his rivals.

Nadal recognized that he needed a triumph on that stage, and he came through at a propitious moment. He needed to prevail in Monte Carlo as much as he has needed any title in a very long time. Leading up to his final round showdown with Federer, Nadal toppled his fellow Spaniard David Ferrer 6-1, 7-5 in the quarterfinals. In the second set of that contest, Nadal was down two service breaks, trailing 3-0,40-15. Later, Ferrer reached 5-4, 40-0, triple set point. Nadal, who had lost his last two encounters against Ferrer at the U.S. Open and in Shanghai, refused to let go of that set, tenaciously striking back to win three games in a row for a straight set victory. Next up for the Spaniard was Nikolay Davydenko, the same man who had routed him in the final of Miami. Nadal exacted revenge over the Russian 6-3, 6-2.

Those two victories propelled Nadal into the championship match against Federer, and once more the sport's premier rivalry was showcased in an idyllic setting. Federer had made some important progress of his own before he even stepped on court with Nadal. He had captured his first tournament of 2008 the previous week in Estoril. On the heels of that success, Federer played his first match in Monte Carlo against qualifier Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo, a 30-year-old Spaniard ranked No. 137 in the world. The world No. 1 nearly suffered a startling second round defeat against a player he should have handled routinely. Ramirez Hidalgo took a commanding 5-1 lead in the final set. He served for the match at 5-2 and 5-4, and reached 30-15 in both games, only to commit unforced errors each time he had a chance to reach double match point. Federer pounced, escaping with a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 (1) victory. Federer played abysmally for a good chunk of that match, but he saved himself admirably in the end after his opponent faltered in the crisis of the contest.

And yet, despite that highly unexpected scare, Federer settled comfortably into a groove. He easily accounted for Gael Monfils in straight sets. Then he upended old rival David Nalbandian 5-7, 6-2, 6-2 in the quarters, striking the ball cleanly and efficiently against a competitor who had beaten him in their two most recent encounters. Then Federer reached the final after leading world No. 3 Novak Djokovic 6-3, 3-2. Djokovic, complaining of dizziness, retired. That gave the Swiss the chance to take on Nadal in an important test for both players. And it gave the rest of us a chance to see the two top players in the sport play each other for the first time in 2008.

It was a gripping contest. Remarkably, Nadal upended Federer 7-5, 7-5 despite losing his serve four times; strikingly, he broke Federer six times. As is always the case in their clay court duels, Nadal sent a barrage of severely struck, heavy topspin forehands and telling down the line backhands relentlessly to the backhand side of Federer. The Swiss was made to play an astounding number of shoulder high balls on the backhand all through both sets. Nadal sustained good depth off both sides through the bulk of the match. Federer had his share of success when he attacked, directing the vast majority of his approach shots to the Nadal backhand.

But while the conditions favored Nadal on the red clay--- this was his seventh triumph in eight career meetings with Federer on that surface--- the Spaniard's mental edge was every bit as apparent. Federer broke serve in the opening game of the match but Nadal broke right back. The Swiss broke again for 4-3 but, once more, Nadal countered with a break of his own. Nadal sealed that set in style. With Federer serving at 5-6, 15-40, he approached with underspin to the backhand, catching Nadal leaning the wrong way. Nadal scampered back into position but had to play a one-handed slice backhand pass. His execution was letter perfect as he angled his shot acutely out of Federer's reach crosscourt.

Nadal was up a set, but soon was in a downward spiral. A majestic Federer, finding his range with the inside-out forehand, timing his backhand impeccably, moving his serve around skillfully, raced to a 4-0 second set lead, sweeping 16 of 21 points in the process. A subdued and seemingly dejected Nadal was out of sorts during that stretch. A third set seemed inevitable. But it was not. Serving at 0-4, 30-15, Nadal took utter control of a rally, moving Federer from side to side methodically, ending that point by driving a forehand crosscourt into an empty space. Now he was on a roll. Nadal collected five straight games to take a 5-4 lead, winning 20 of 26 points in that span. He remained absolutely committed to his game plan, pummeling away from the back of the court as Federer came apart at the seams. Not only was the world No. 1 missing difficult high backhands, but his forehand largely deserted him as his second set lead slipped away.

To his credit, Federer refused to surrender easily. At 4-5, 0-15, he came in, played a confident low forehand volley crosscourt, and then lunged brilliantly to his left to cut off a Nadal down the line passing shot. Federer knifed that volley away crosscourt, and won three more points rushing the net on his way to 5-5. It was a brave stand. But Nadal was not swayed, not in the least. He held at love for 6-5, opening that game with a stupendously crafted forehand winner that he curled down the line off a short angled backhand from Federer. Serving to save the match in the following game, Federer had two game points. Had he converted either, he would have been in a tie-break. But he seemed mentally weary. Nadal closed it out with typical perspicacity, raising his career record to 9-6 over Federer, and lifting his own pride considerably in the process.

Federer should feel buoyed despite his shortcomings against Nadal. Having won Estoril, he had reached the final in Monte Carlo after coming precariously close to what would have been an inexplicable second round exit against Ramirez Hidalgo. He must feel as if he is moving in the right direction and giving himself the best possible preparation for the French Open. But, deep in the inner recesses of his mind, he knows that Nadal is not beating him by accident on clay. The fluctuating fortunes of the two competitors in the second set of the Monte Carlo final accurately reflect the fundamental problem Federer has against the Spaniard.

Federer has the capacity to dictate the tempo for stretches against Nadal, to impose himself by both coming forward and volleying with finality or staying back and sprinkling the court with winners. But sustaining that kind of play is a challenge of the highest order. How else to explain Nadal beating Federer in four set clashes in each of the last three years at Roland Garros? Federer can produce brilliance in sequences, but Nadal can eventually wear him down with the weight of his topspin, the strength of his mind, the relentlessness of his style. To be sure, Federer had a decent shot at winning the first set in Monte Carlo and was in a commanding position in the second, but Nadal forces him to keep playing almost impossibly well.

Meanwhile, Nadal will try to build on his Monte Carlo triumph. He has now won 98 of his last 99 clay court matches. Will he be as dominant as he has been on the clay en route to Roland Garros the last three years? In 2005, Nadal was beaten by Igor Andreev in Valencia but then won Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome. In 2006, he swept Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome again. Last year, he took that trio of championships again before finally losing to an inspired Federer in the final of Hamburg. A thoroughly fatigued Nadal was competing for the fourth week out of five.

What is the outlook for this season leading up to his quest for as fourth French Open title in a row? He might lose a match somewhere along the way to Roland Garros, but I fully expect Nadal to remain a dominant force on the clay. As it stands now, I would rate Bjorn Borg--- the six-time Roland Garros victor--- as the greatest ever to play the game on clay. But Nadal is closing the gap between himself and Borg every year. He does not turn 22 until the middle of the French Open. He should have three or four big years ahead of him, as long as his body holds up. He could well go down as the best ever on his finest surface.

For the time being, this much is certain: Rafael Nadal is back on the clay, and back awfully close to the top of his clay court game. That is good news not only for him but for tennis.

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