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Steve Flink: Nadal Still Climbing Back

10/19/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

In Rafael Nadal’s world, there is seldom room for discouragement. He comes into every arena fully prepared for battle, with a heart and soul that no one in his field has ever surpassed, bringing a mindset that could only belong to a champion. He plays every match like the total professional that he unmistakably is. He is among the most charismatic performers in his sport, a man who loves to be challenged, a player who looks for every conceivable way to win without resorting to gamesmanship. He gives every contest his all, and lets the chips fall where they may.

Lately, the man who finished 2008 indisputably at No. 1 in the world, and then moved way out ahead of the pack in the early stages of 2009, had not had many chips fall his way. His knees went south on him during the French Open, and cost him an excellent chance to win a fifth crown in a row at Roland Garros. He could not play at Wimbledon. He came back in August and played reasonably well, but was clearly not the old Nadal. Nadal was beaten soundly by Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals of Montreal, cast aside emphatically by Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of Cincinnati, obliterated 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 by Del Potro in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

By then, the 23-year-old Spaniard was suffering from an abdominal injury which seemed to severely restrict his serve, most notably his wide swinging sliced delivery in the ad court. Nadal pulled out of one tournament after the Open and skipped a Davis Cup assignment to make certain he gave his abdominal injury enough time to heal. He had a decent run to the semifinals in Beijing, only to confront a top of the line and unerring Marin Cilic, who took apart Nadal 6-1, 6-3 with a startling combination of unwavering power and uncanny ball control. Nadal has seldom looked as helpless on a tennis court as he did in that contest.

But he regrouped ably in Shanghai this past week. For the second week in a row, he was given a stern test by a seemingly revitalized James Blake, but once more Nadal came through. Nadal held back Blake 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-4 in a high quality encounter. Blake had rallied from a break down at 3-2 to take the second set with some dazzling play in the tie-break, and then the American fought back hard again after Nadal led 4-2 in the final set. Blake even had a game point for 5-5, but Nadal rolled a magnificent high trajectory backhand pass down the line out of Blake’s reach to take that critical point, and wrapped up the match two points later with a brilliantly disguised forehand down the line winner.

Nadal handled countryman Tommy Robredo in straight sets to reach the quarters, setting up a meeting with former world No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, who has played with sporadic brilliance and renewed conviction this year after a sharp decline in 2008. Ljubicic served terrifically to take the first set from a confounded Nadal, and then the big Croatian had the Spaniard in a bind at 1-1, 0-40 in the second set. Nadal held on, broke Ljubicic in the following game, and took control of the set.

Ahead 5-2, Nadal looked to get an insurance break, hoping to use that as an opportunity to start serving in the final set. But Ljubicic began taking almost absurd risks off the ground, going for absolute broke and making shots that seemed impossible. He held on and then called for the trainer for help with an ailing hip. After getting his upper leg rubbed, Ljubicic was not much better off. Knowing he could not move freely, Ljubicic kept blasting away and nearly broke Nadal, but the Spaniard held on for the set. Ljubicic played a few more points but then retired, and so Nadal was through to the semifinals. He met countryman Feliciano Lopez in that round, but Lopez, who had picked apart Robin Soderling in the previous round, had a foot ailment.

Lopez seemed unable to play his customary serve-and-volley game, and was hopelessly outclassed by Nadal from the baseline. He then injured his right ankle near the end of the first set, and a bad plight grew worse. Nadal led 6-1, 3-0, 15-40, when Lopez elected to retire. And so, for the first time since the spring, Nadal had made it to a final. That he got there in such a bizarre fashion was incidental to the Spaniard; he was in a title match again, and grateful for that opportunity.

I thought we were headed for a renewal of the Nadal-Novak Djokovic rivalry in the Shanghai final, but was not to be. Djokovic had won Beijing convincingly, and then reached the semifinals of Shanghai. But he was toppled in the end by a rejuvenated Nikolay Davydenko, the perennial top ten player who had lived for so long among the top five. Davydenko was suffering from an injured heel earlier this year, but against Djokovic he was on song and hitting every note impeccably. In fact, both men performed admirably.

In the entire match, each man broke only once, and the quality of their play from the backcourt was extraordinary. The first set was settled when Davydenko lost his serve at 4-5 as Djokovic returned with good depth and the 28-year-old Russian had a rough spell off the ground. Djokovic had a big chance to start pulling away when he built a 2-1, 15-40 lead in the second set, but Davydenko emerged unscathed when he approached the net confidently to fight off both break points. At 3-3, Davydenko broke Djokovic, and he charged to 5-3.

In the ninth game, Djokovic was down double set point at 15-40, but he unleashed a crackling two-hander crosscourt that was unanswerable. He then served an ace and held on for 4-5. Although Davydenko served a love game at 5-4 to close out the set--- concluding that game with consecutive aces-- Djokovic had the luxury of serving first in the final set. The Serbian served skillfully on his way to a 3-2 lead, conceding only two points in three games on his delivery. He then reached 0-40 in the sixth game on Davydenko’s serve, and seemed poised to put victory firmly in his grasp.

Davydenko, however, was unwavering. He fought his way out of that game impressively. Djokovic missed narrowly off the forehand on the first break point, Davydenko went on the attack to save the next two. It was soon 3-3, and both players held on through the set to reach a fitting and concluding tie-break. Davydenko was outstanding in this sequence. He took the first point in a superbly crafted 15 stroke baseline exchange. On the next point, Davydenko won an 18 shot rally with a beautifully angled two-hander crosscourt forcing a mistake from Djokovic.

Djokovic was plainly spent by the work he had put in to no avail on the first two points. He made a tired error off the backhand to make it 3-0 for Davydenko, and then another off the forehand gave Davydenko the upper hand for good. He hit a remarkably precise two-handed pass crosscourt for 5-0, and closed out the tie-break 7-1 with by driving an immaculate forehand crosscourt into an empty space. Davydenko had come through 4-6, 6-4, 7-6(1).

Only once before had Davydenko beaten Nadal, and that was in another ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event last year in Miami. On that occasion, in another hard court skirmish, Davydenko had halted Nadal 6-3, 6-2. He had played a great tennis match in the Florida sunshine, but on this occasion in Shanghai his level of play was even brighter. It was nearly impossible for Nadal to find a weakness in the Russian, who was typically impenetrable off the backhand but surprisingly aggressive and accurate of his more vulnerable forehand side.

In the third game of the match, Davydenko set the tone. With Nadal serving at 1-1 and down break point for the third time, Djokovic laced an immaculate forehand down the line, sensed that Nadal was in trouble, and made a delayed approach for a spectacular forehand drive volley winner behind Nadal. Davydenko exploited Nadal’s lack of feel on the sliced backhand, and moved out to a 4-2, 15-40 lead, placing himself on the verge of a double service break lead.

Nadal somehow escaped as Davydenko went through a bad spell off the forehand, losing his range. Nadal held on for 3-4, broke back for 4-4 as Davydenko pulled a forehand wide at break point, and then the Spaniard held for 5-4 after approaching down the line off the backhand to set up a forehand volley into an open court. With Davydenko losing confidence as he served in the tenth game, Nadal reached set point. Nadal’s cautious return landed inside the service line. Davydenko came forward and Nadal attempted a forehand topspin lob, which was much too short. Davydenko easily put his overhead away, and held for 5-5.

They moved on to a pivotal tie-break, and Davydenko was every bit as good in this sequence as he had been in the third set tie-break against Djokovic the day before. He won it 7-3, hitting five outright winners in the process, hardly giving Nadal a chance. On the first point of that tie-break, Davydenko employed a tactic that was increasingly effective for him, pulling Nadal off the court with a penetrating topspin forehand crosscourt, slipping in for a backhand volley winner as Nadal went to the backhand slice.

Davydenko nailed a two-hander crosscourt to elicit a short forehand crosscourt from Nadal. The Russian had the opening for a sparkling backhand down the line winner. It was 2-0 for Davydenko. After Nadal climbed back to 2-2, Davydenko concluded a bruising 14 stroke rally with another backhand down the line winner. Nadal was then barely off the mark with a forehand crosscourt, and Davydenko was ahead 4-2. Effortlessly, Davydenko rolled a forehand inside-out winner off a short backhand from the Spaniard for 5-2. The die was cast. Nadal fell behind 6-3 when he bungled an inside-out forehand. Davydenko underlined his authority on the final point of the tie-break, driving one more two-hander down the line and out of reach for a clean winner.

At 2-2 in the second set, Nadal had a break point, but here he let himself down flagrantly. Davydenko hit a medium paced first serve to the forehand, which Nadal smothered with excessive topspin into the net. Given that surprising reprieve, Davydenko held for 3-2 and never looked back. He broke Nadal for 4-2, and held on twice from there to finish off a 7-6 (3), 6-3 triumph.

I believe Davydenko played perhaps the best match of his career. His mobility--- something that is too often taken for granted--- was astonishing, especially in light of his three hour battle the previous day. His ball striking was phenomenal, and he hurt Nadal in multiple ways with the angled forehand crosscourt, the blistering forehand down the line, unexpected net approaches, and the propensity always to hit behind the Spaniard to the forehand side. In that sense, Nadal had nothing to be ashamed about in losing the match.

In sharp contrast to many of his other recent defeats, he was in this match, and had his share of chances. He would almost surely have prevailed had he converted that set point at 4-5 in the first set. He simply did not have enough conviction after the string of losses he has experienced as of late. Those who have watched Nadal compete with regularity over the years could sense that the inner belief was not quite there.

The feeling here is that Nadal is edging closer to the top of his game, starting to see what is possible in the weeks ahead, figuring out just what he needs to do as he moves toward the Masters 1000 event in Paris, the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals, and the Davis Cup Final. He needs to find that spark and raise his game and his profile in the upcoming tournaments. If he can win one of those,( or at least reach a couple of finals), if he can knock off some of his leading rivals, if he can reach back with all of his inimitable resources and find the missing elements, Nadal will then carry on into 2010 fully convinced that he can return to the summit.

The signs are there that Nadal is progressing. He is moving exceedingly well. He no longer seems to be hindered by the abdominal strain. His knees are not bothering him. My hope is that the Nadal we once knew will be back in full swing very soon, spurring himself on, fueled by his emotions, inspired to play the game entirely on his terms once more. Rafael Nadal is not there yet, but not far away either.

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