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Steve Flink: The King of Clay Rules Again

4/21/2009 12:56:00 PM

by Steve Flink

After watching on television as Rafael Nadal overcame a top of the line Novak Djokovic 6-3, 2-6, 6-1 in the final of Monte Carlo on Sunday---- capturing that prestigious clay court crown for a modern record breaking fifth consecutive year--- I was reminded of how frequently the scores of matches can be completely misleading.  I’m sure many tennis fans who saw only the final score line-- but not the match itself---- were falsely led to believe that this was another relatively straightforward triumph for the man many of us believe is the greatest clay court player of all time. The raw numbers make it appear that Nadal--- despite losing the second set--- was not unduly troubled as he recorded his 34th career tournament victory in 43 final round appearances on the ATP World Tour.

Take it from me: that was not the case. This battle--- fought out so brilliantly between Nadal and his Serbian adversary--- was of the highest order, full of suspense and breathtaking rallies, a phenomenal piece of business from both sides of the net. Djokovic—following up convincingly on his final round showing at Indian Wells--- answered the critics who were beginning to believe not long ago that he was a figure in utter disarray. His score against Nadal simply does not to justice to how well he performed against his incomparable left-handed rival. Djokovic was first rate across the board, stretching Nadal close to his absolute limits, coming at the Spaniard with a superb combination of power and finesse, making unprovoked mistakes almost entirely when he was taking the kinds of risks that are so necessary against the singularly unflinching Nadal.

Let’s examine the way the contest unfolded, and how much the outcome was in doubt until the last couple of games in the final set. It all commenced in predictable fashion as Nadal got an immediate service break against a somewhat apprehensive Djokovic in the opening game of the match. Despite an excellent backhand down the line approach from Djokovic, Nadal managed to snap a magnificent two-handed backhand pass at an acute angle crosscourt for a winner to move in front. But the first big clue of what was ahead occurred with Nadal serving at 1-0, 40-30. Djokovic sent a low and well disguised backhand drop shot down the line to draw Nadal in, and then rolled an immaculate topspin lob down the line over Nadal’s head into the corner that the Spaniard chased down to no avail.

Djokovic promptly broke back and then took a 3-1 lead by breaking Nadal again in the fourth game. Down break point, Nadal tried the backhand drop down the line but Djokovic scampered forward and replied with his own drop shot, luring Nadal into an error. The 21-year-old Serbian had come from a break down and was now up a break, playing with immense poise and precision. Nadal, of course, was not rattled. On the first point of the fifth game, Nadal flicked a forehand pass with almost no backswing down the line into the clear. Another passing shot at Djokovic’s feet made it 0-30, and soon Nadal had broken at love before holding for 3-3.

The seventh game of that first set was crucial. Through three deuces, both players raised the stakes high in gripping exchanges. But near the end of that game, Djokovic started grabbing his back. After losing his serve to trail 4-3 with three straight unforced errors that were not indicative of his solid and resourceful play throughout most of the contest, Djokovic called out the trainer, who rubbed his back with a gel. While Nadal fired winners off both flanks in capturing the next two games at the cost of only two points---- taking the set on a run of five consecutive games--- Djokovic briefly lost his range off the ground.

And yet, I have seen it so many times: Djokovic calls out a trainer for one ailment or another, finds out what is wrong, and before too long recovers his conviction and composure. He simply seems to need reassurance from trainers that nothing is seriously wrong with him. And so it was here. In the first game of the second set, a buoyant Djokovic won one of the most spectacular points of the match to break serve, exploiting his backhand drop shot again, reading Nadal’s response, playing a remarkable lob volley, and remaining poised even after Nadal improbably chased that shot down and stayed in the rally with a staggering get off the forehand.  Undismayed, Djokovic stood his ground, came back up to the net again, and prevailed with an overhead winner.

That moment altered the complexion of the match unmistakably. Djokovic was now soaring while Nadal was temporarily thrown off guard. With Djokovic serving at 2-1, Nadal seemed almost certain to break back when he reached 15-40, but the Spaniard could not handle yet another strategically placed slice serve wide to his backhand as the Serbian unexpectedly served-and-volleyed, and then Nadal was off the mark when he went for one of his familiar inside-out forehands. An astonishing forehand down the line winner on the dead run gave Nadal a third break point, but Djokovic wiped that away with a first rate approach off the backhand setting up a backhand volley winner.

Djokovic gamely held on for 3-1 and then broke Nadal again for 4-1 with some clever changes of pace and excellent defense. Coming forward judiciously, Djokovic was nine for nine on net approaches in the second set. Particularly impressive was the angled forehand half volley winner he made off a Nadal forehand pass at his feet. That outstanding point gave Djokovic a 5-1 lead, and two games later he served out the set with consecutive aces. It was one set all. Djokovic was in full command of his powers while Nadal was not playing with his customary clay court acumen.

The opening game of the third set was the biggest of the match. Djokovic needed to maintain his momentum, and to build a cushion for himself that might give him a chance to keep letting the adrenaline flow while continually applying pressure on the heavily favored Nadal. That first game was stupendous from both competitors. Djokovic had three break points. On the first one, Nadal connected with one of the most startling shots of his career. Djokovic came in and played a delicate and low forehand drop volley that looked like a sure winner.

Nadal raced forward and somehow got to the ball before it bounced twice. Making contact inches above the ground, Nadal found a way to steer the ball by Djokovic. It was the stuff of dreams for Nadal, but the reality of that impossibly produced shot was undoubtedly a punishing blow to the Djokovic psyche. Nevertheless, he fought on valiantly, as did the redoubtable Nadal. Down break point a second time, Nadal swung his slice serve in the ad court just wide enough to force a rare return error from the Serbian. On the third break point, another deep first serve to the backhand coaxed Djokovic into an errant return. After four deuces and 13 minutes and 32 seconds of war, Nadal held on for 1-0. The next game was nearly as long and every bit as ferociously contested. Djokovic had four game points but double faulted on two of them. Nadal moved to 2-0 when Djokovic drove a forehand that bounded off the net cord and flew well over the baseline.

The third game followed the pattern of the first two, with four deuces, one spirited point after another and two men refusing to concede anything in their pursuit of victory. Twice, Nadal had game points for 3-0, but he was uncommonly tense on each one. He drove a routine forehand off the net cord wide--- extraordinary for a man who almost always gives himself a healthy margin for error over the net--- and then made a terrible mistake by his standards when he netted an inside-out forehand off a relative sitter. Djokovic broke back to make it 2-1, and it seemed then that this confrontation might go down to the wire. Those first three games had lasted no less than 41 minutes, and Djokovic still looked as if he had some staying power.

But Nadal is as unshakable a player as I have ever seen. He remained steadfast and displayed no sign of insecurity. With Djokovic serving at 1-2,30-40, Nadal lifted his return purposefully high to the forehand of Djokovic, who miss-hit his shot well out of court. It was 3-1, and finally Djokovic was spent.  Nadal, meanwhile, was just warming up. He held at love for 4-1 with a backhand crosscourt pass off a poorly disguised backhand drop shot, followed by a confident forehand down the line winner, and an ace down the T--- only his second of the match--- that made it 4-1. Djokovic double faulted at 1-4, 15-40 and then Nadal served out the match at love as an understandably despondent Djokovic missed time and again.

And so--- despite the fact that Djokovic may have played the clay court match of his life (performing at an even higher than he did a year ago in the semifinals of Hamburg when he pushed Nadal to 7-5, 2-6, 6-2) --- Nadal had every reason to leave Monte Carlo feeling gratified that he had begun the clay court season with a significant triumph. Moreover, not only did he hold back Djokovic with another astounding display of his unparalleled mental toughness, but the Spaniard also stood up to a searching test from Andy Murray in the second set of their Monte Carlo semifinal.

Nadal picked apart Murray methodically in establishing a 6-2, 5-2 lead. The only time Murray held serve in the opening set---- he broke Nadal once--- the British No. 1 was down 0-40. Nadal’s returns were too deep and his consistency was too much for a young man who was appearing in his first career semifinal at a clay court event. A one-sided verdict seemed inevitable, and Murray was unwilling for too long to take enough chances as he fought in vain to contain Nadal from the baseline.

At 2-5, 15-30, two points from defeat, Murray ventured in for a forehand drop volley winner, catching Nadal off guard. He then started flattening out his forehand and going for broke, and held on for 3-5. But as Nadal served for the match at 5-3, he had lost his serve only once in the match, and had not faced a break point in the second set. In a tense and gripping game lasting three deuces, Nadal escaped from break point down twice and then arrived at match point. The Spaniard played it too safe, and Murray threw in a forehand sidespin drop shot winner.

Now attacking forcefully and hitting out much more freely from the baseline, Murray broke Nadal for 4-5, only to find himself down 15-30 again in the tenth game. Murray made a surprise approach to the net from a deep position off his forehand, and Nadal was rushed into a passing shot error off the backhand. At game point for 5-5, Murray took a short return from Nadal and drove his forehand crosscourt for an outright winner. It was 5-5. Murray was invigorated and grateful to still be on court. Nadal was tense and losing depth off both sides, but still giving almost nothing away.

Both men held to set up a tie-break, and that sequence was one of the best I have ever seen in a match of this high caliber. Both players were so audacious, majestic and gritty, that it was as if they were involved in a playful encounter of “Can You Top This?” Nadal took a double mini-break lead at 3-0 with a forehand inside-out winner that landed on the sideline. Murray replied with a stunning two-handed backhand winner angled acutely crosscourt, a shot not even Nadal could run down. Then Murray walloped an inside-out forehand to force Nadal into a mistake.

It was back on serve for Murray at 2-3, but he sent a backhand down the line inches over the baseline. No matter; Murray took the next point with a spectacular inside-out forehand winner to make it 4-3 for Nadal. Nadal and Murray then had their biggest and best exchange of the match in a rally consuming 29 strokes. It ended when Nadal curled a forehand down the line “outside-in” for a winner and a 5-3 lead. Murray then hit a deep return and followed with an inside-out forehand winner.

This was all mind boggling stuff. Murray--- rather than serving at triple match point down--- was back on serve at 4-5 in the tie-break. Murray pulled Nadal wide with a scorching crosscourt forehand, but the Spaniard at full stretch laced a two-hander crosscourt near the service line and just inside the sideline to reach 6-4 and double match point. That rally lasted 26 strokes and was almost out of this world. Murray had done all he could. Nadal directed an aggressive forehand deep to his backhand, and the world No. 4 could not clear the net with his two-hander. Match to Nadal 6-2, 7-6 (4).

But Murray surely walked away with a new recognition of how accomplished he could become on a surface he never previously understood or enjoyed much at all. He gave himself a large dose of encouragement by pushing Nadal so thoroughly in that second set. I look for him to sustain his progress through the rest of the clay court campaign. He is now a player for all surfaces, and it is exciting to witness the strides he has made lately.

It was also terrific to see Djokovic so relaxed, confident and essentially calm in reaching the final of Monte Carlo. I watched with special interest as he stood up so ably to the improved Fernando Verdasco in the quarterfinals. While it is true that Verdasco has not been able to replicate the inspired tennis he played at the Australian Open when he upended Murray in the round of 16 and then went toe to toe with Nadal for five hours and 14 minutes in the semifinals, the fact remains that the left-handed Spaniard has been reliable and impressive in many ways after returning from nursing an injury following the Australian Open.

Verdasco made it to the quarterfinals at Indian Wells and could have played a better match against Roger Federer, but it was still a decent showing. In Miami, it took Murray to bring him down in the quarters. And he made a strong start to his clay court campaign in Monte Carlo by reaching the final eight. Going into his meeting with Djokovic, I saw this as a tough match to call.

Djokovic emerged as the victor 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, and it was a triumph well earned. His first serve was far superior to Verdasco’s, he was consistently sounder off the ground, and when the chips were on the line in the third set he was decidedly superior. Djokovic got the only break of the set for 4-2 and made it count. I was impressed with his effort against a player who has made such substantial gains. Djokovic followed up that win with another three set win, this one over Stanislas Warwinka, his victim in the 2008 Italian Open final. Wawrinka won the first set, lost the second easily, but then led 2-0 in the final set.

Djokovic did not despair, collecting six of the last seven games to get the job done. He was not at the top of his game in that contest, but what I liked about Djokovic in his victories over Verdasco and Wawrinka, and for the most part in the final against Nadal, was how he moved much closer to equanimity. What has hurt him so much over the last year--- and particularly in the early stages of this season---- is his often frantic behavior. He has frequently gone from celebrating too exuberantly to getting downright distraught, wandering to emotional extremes with alarming regularity.

At Monte Carlo, his less demonstrative behavior was something he wore well. He should take stock and try to stay on a more neutral emotional ground. He should not be afraid to display positive energy every once in a while as he did against Nadal in the championship match, but does not need to go overboard with his feelings. Having reached consecutive Masters 1000 finals in Miami and Monte Carlo, having carved out wins over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer, and Verdasco in the process, Djokovic is on the right track toward restoring his inner belief. Moreover, he seems to have put aside any insecurity about his new racket; in Monte Carlo, his ball control was back in his old range, and was no longer flailing at the forehand.

As for Wawrinka, he pulled off the upset of the tournament when he toppled his friend and Davis Cup team mate Roger Federer 6-4, 7-5. Federer was not originally entered in the draw, and had planned to start his clay court campaign in Rome. But he changed his mind the week before Monte Carlo and took a wild card, perhaps recollecting his visits to the final the previous three years. Perhaps he felt he could at least go deep into the draw and get some match practice on the clay as he sets his sights on Roland Garros.

But all he got was a loss he could have done without. After an unimpressive second round win over Andreas Seppi following a first round bye, he was nowhere near where ne needed to be against Wawrinka, a player he had never lost to in four previous meetings. It all went south for Federer at 3-3 in the opening set. He lost his serve at that juncture as his forehand let him down badly. Down break point, he ran around the backhand and drove a forehand long. Federer was trying to direct that shot back down the line to make Wawrinka play a forehand rather than going for his more reliable inside-out forehand.

That miss cost him the first set. In his last two service games of that set, Wawrinka allowed Federer only two points. Federer rallied from a break down at the start of the second set to lead 5-4 on serve, but never won another game. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Wawrinka did not crack. He sliced a first serve wide to the forehand, and Federer drove his return well out. At 40-30, Wawrinka went to the forehand again with a flatter first serve, and it was unanswerable.

Federer was clearly not yet acclimated on the clay, and his problems were only compounded by a serve that was not there when he needed it. At 5-5, he missed seven of eight first serves and was broken. At deuce, Federer was off the mark with yet another inside-in forehand, and then he was lured into another error as Wawrinka used a short, low backhand slice to force Federer into missing a forehand approach. Serving for the match, Wawrinka got tight and was twice down break point, but he bailed himself out ably. A fine first serve into the body was mishandled by Federer on the first break point, and then Wawrinka connected perfectly with a forehand winner down the line off a short ball. On his first match point, Wawrinka left Federer stranded when he drove a backhand down the line with topspin and sidespin for an outright winner.

What are we to make of Federer’s 6-4, 7-5 loss to his countryman?  Perhaps he was asking too much of himself to head out onto the clay only a few days after getting married. He was not due to start competing on that surface until Rome next week, and might well have been better off practicing. But the bottom line is that he has yet to capture a title in 2009. His confidence appears to be at the lowest possible ebb.

I was surprised over the last four years how infrequently Federer lost to anyone other than Nadal on clay. In 2005, he was upset by Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals but then won Hamburg before falling to Nadal in the semifinals at Roland Garros.

On to 2006.  That year he was runner-up to Nadal in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Roland Garros. No one else toppled him on the clay. In 2007, he did suffer a startling loss to Filippo Volandri in Rome on the same day he parted ways with his coach Tony Roche. He had lost to Nadal in the Monte Carlo final again, but then beat the Spaniard in the final of Hamburg, ending Nadal’s 81 match winning streak. Once more, Federer was ushered out of Roland Garros by Nadal in the final. And then in 2008, Federer lost to Nadal in the Monte Carlo, Hamburg and Roland Garros title matches, with his only other loss occurring against Radek Stepanek in Rome.

When you reflect on that record, it is astonishing in many ways. In that span from 2005-2008, he lost 12 matches on the clay and nine of those defeats were courtesy of Nadal. Only three men aside from Nadal beat him in those four years on clay. But this year things could change considerably. Will this defeat against Wawrinka lead to more surprises on the 2009 clay court trail? That could well be the case. He will be hard pressed to avoid more jarring setbacks, and Federer will need a kind draw and an altered frame of mind to make it back to the final at Roland Garros.

Be that as it may, Nadal is off and running again on the dirt. That he managed to fend off a determined Murray and an often inspired Djokovic was a tribute to the Spaniard’s ineffable match playing skills. He was as brilliant as ever on defense in Monte Carlo, and played the biggest points with typical pugnacity. But he has much room for improvement as he moves toward Roland Garros. He never quite found his full confidence on his inside-out forehand, and was missing more than usual off that side. Because he was not executing that shot at full force and efficiency, he backed away at times from playing as aggressively as he can.

As a result, he spent too much time in Monte Carlo trapped far behind the baseline. His other problem was his serve, which was entirely too predictable. Against Djokovic, he went almost exclusively to the backhand and his placement was not that impressive. He did not stretch Djokovic out wide to the backhand as often as he needed to. His wide slice serve in the advantage court was hardly there. Finally, in the third set of the final, he moved his serve around more and went wide to Djokovic’s forehand in the deuce court and down the T a few times on the other side. I expect to see a lot more of that variation in the weeks ahead on clay, and believe he will start stepping well inside the baseline more frequently to take control of points off his forehand.

And yet, the bottom line is that Nadal--- without touching the heights of his game--- held off Murray in straight sets and pulled away from Djokovic at the end of a stirring final. In his first clay court tournament of 2009, Nadal was pressed hard by two of his premier adversaries, and was not found wanting. This man never ceases to amaze me.

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