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Steve Flink: Rafa Ends Drought

4/19/2010 12:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

He cast aside five adversaries at the cost of a mere 14 games in ten nearly impeccable sets. He stepped back onto the clay, reminded everyone just how masterful he is on that surface, reaffirmed for himself that no one can topple him on the dirt when he is healthy and confident. He captured the Monte Carlo Rolex Masters title for the sixth consecutive year with a sweepingly efficient week’s worth of work, and a stellar demonstration of sustained concentration and consistency. Most importantly, he broke a 13 tournament losing streak dating back to May of 2009, giving himself precisely the boost he needed by securing an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event at the outset of the 2010 clay court campaign. Rafael Nadal has rediscovered the art of winning, and has surely repaired any lingering wounds to his psyche by performing with his old conviction and panache on his favorite courts in the world.

Nadal’s final round triumph over Fernando Verdasco was never in doubt. In demolishing his compatriot and raising his record against Verdasco to 10-0, Nadal was ruthless, unrelenting, purposeful and quietly intense. He had waited a long time for this moment, and he was not about to let it slip from his grasp. Verdasco, meanwhile, was full of apprehension, seemingly devoid of a game plan, fully aware of exactly who and what he was up against. In this battle of left-handers, Verdasco’s only hope was to take each and every midcourt ball that came his way and step around to unleash crackling forehand winners. But those opportunities were few and far between, and too often the risks he took were too large. With Nadal near the top of his clay court game--- playing with immense discipline, pounding his forehand with sharp precision, flattening out his two-hander crosscourt frequently, orchestrating points methodically—Verdasco was understandably negative and baffled.

The signs were there from the beginning. Nadal broke Verdasco at love in the opening game as his fellow Spaniard made four unforced errors, three off his bigger forehand side. Nadal raced to 40-15 in the second game before Verdasco released a pair of dazzling forehand down the line winners to make it deuce. Nadal was unflustered. In a 20 stroke exchange, he connected beautifully with a backhand crosscourt, accelerating the pace of that shot to produce an outright winner. And then Nadal made his play of the match to reach 2-0. Verdasco closed in for a backhand volley from close range, angling the shot sharply crosscourt. But Nadal had “stayed home”. He chased that volley down, and caught up with it easily. The obvious place for him to go with his backhand pass was down the line. Instead, he rolled it acutely crosscourt with plenty of topspin for an astonishing winner.

There was more suffering ahead for Verdasco. Serving in the third game, he rallied gamely from 0-40 to deuce with three straight clean winners. Once more, Nadal buckled down. At deuce, his backhand return was too good; Verdasco netted a two-hander down the line. On break point, Nadal rolled a forceful forehand return sharply crosscourt, and Verdasco was rushed into a forehand mistake. Nadal was at 3-0, two breaks up. From there, he took 12 of the next 18 points to close out the set. Verdasco was surely discouraged, but he did not surrender.

In the opening game of the second set, Nadal reached break point thrice, but Verdasco held serve at last, concluding that game with an ace. That was no mean feat because Nadal was getting 87% of his returns back into play. Nadal promptly held at 15 with a forehand winner. In the third game, Verdasco had a 40-15 lead, let his rival back into that game, and that lapse was costly. Nadal eventually broke with a spectacular forehand crosscourt passing shot. Nadal held relatively easily for 3-1 and then broke at love for 4-1 as Verdasco played a desultory game, losing his serve at love with a double fault and three other unforced errors. Nadal was down 15-40 in the sixth game, but he held on after four deuces. On the penultimate point of that game, Nadal underlined his supremacy, winning a 24 stroke rally by stepping up the pace of his backhand down the line just enough to provoke a forehand error from Verdasco.  Nadal closed out a 6-0, 6-1 victory with one last break, finishing his task appropriately with a forehand down the line winner.

This was the most dominant week of Nadal’s illustrious career. The 14 games he lost over the course of five match victories was the fewest he has ever conceded at any tournament he has yet played. He opened with a 6-1, 6-0 win over Thiemo De Bakker. Next he accounted for Michael Berrer (who inexplicably defeated Juan Monaco) 6-0, 6-1. In the quarters, Nadal cut down former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero 6-4, 6-2, and then in the semifinals he took apart David Ferrer 6-2, 6-3. Ferrero made Nadal work hard for a while, erasing a 2-0 first set deficit to lead 3-2 before a brief rain delay. But when they returned, Nadal started exposing the weakness of Ferrero’s second serve. His returns were scorching thereafter, and Nadal swept 10 of the last 13 games for the triumph.

The last time Nadal had played Ferrer, he had been unconvincing in their hard court clash at Miami. Nadal was victorious 7-6 (5), 6-4, but he was hard pressed throughout that skirmish. This time around, Nadal was a different player as he took matters entirely into his own hands. Only in the very early stages was Nadal in any difficulty. At 0-1, 30-30, he double faulted to fall behind break point, but he erased that problem swiftly with a service winner down the T. Nadal prevailed in a taxing 28 stroke rally on the next point, and soon he held at love for 1-1. From that juncture, Nadal collected 12 of the next 16 points to go up two breaks. Then he made it 5-1 with a topspin backhand lob winner down the line. Two games later, he held at love for the set.

With Nadal pummeling away at Ferrer’s weaker backhand wing--- sending his forehand over and over again crosscourt with heavy topspin--- the No. 11 seed was neutralized from the back of the court. Nadal refused to allow Ferrer time to exploit his superior inside-out forehand. Nadal went up a break at 2-1 in the second set, lost his serve, but then broke for 3-2, curling a sparkling forehand up the line for a winner that left Ferrer stranded. At 3-2, 30-0, Nadal ended a fierce 23 stroke rally with a clean winner crosscourt off the backhand, then held at love for 4-2, and broke again for 5-2. He did not serve out the match, but broke again to complete a 6-2, 6-3 triumph. That was a job well done.

While Nadal was terrific all tournament long, two of the other leading players were not. Top seeded Novak Djokovic was first rate on his way to the semifinals, winning every match in straight sets, dismissing Stanislas Wawrinka and David Nalbandian in impressive performances. I thought Djokovic was excellent against Nalbandian, mixing up the pace of his shots adroitly from beginning to end, avoiding loose patches, waiting for the right moments to crack his inside-out forehand. I had not seen Djokovic look that stable from the baseline in a long while, but then he went out and performed abysmally against Verdasco in a 6-2, 6-2 semifinal loss.

To be sure, Verdasco was excellent. He had it all going for him. His returns were deep and reliable, his defense was admirable, his forehand humming. There can be no doubt that Djokovic needed to be at his very best with Verdasco so close to the upper level of his game. But Djokovic was far from his zenith. The Serbian had a chance for a quick break at the start, leading 1-0, 15-40. But Verdasco stymied him there. On the 30-40 point, Verdasco made a superb service return that allowed him to eventually take that exchange. Soon it was 1-1. Instead of an immediate cushion and a chance to build momentum, Djokovic was simply on serve.

From 2-2 in that set, Verdasco did not lose another game. Djokovic double faulted his serve away in the fifth game. By the middle of the seventh game, Djokovic had committed 17 unforced errors, ten more than the Spaniard. The Serbian won only one point in the last two games of that opening set. At 1-1 in the second set, down break point for the third time, Djokovic fought with tenacity through a grueling 27 stroke rally, but despite some extraordinary defending, his effort was to no avail. Verdasco got the break for 2-1. The Spaniard gave it right back to make the score 2-2, but thereafter Djokovic seemed to wander away. Verdasco garnered 16 of the last 20 points and four games in a row to make his first Masters 1000 final. He acquitted himself honorably, but the mysterious Djokovic was maddeningly disinterested.

In the end, this Monte Carlo event was simply another celebration of Nadal’s greatness. He is the first man in the “Open Era” to win any tournament six years in a row. What makes his feat all the more remarkable is that Monte Carlo is the opening event on the clay court circuit. All of the leading players are getting acclimated on the dirt, finding their timing and rhythm after the early season hard court tournaments, looking to get settled. For Nadal to win a tournament of this caliber year after year under those circumstances is a real credit to him. The fields are always formidable in Monte Carlo, although this year some important names were missing. Roger Federer elected to start his clay court season later than usual this year. Juan Martin Del Potro and Nikolay Davydenko have ongoing wrist problems. Andy Roddick was not there.

None of that matters to Nadal. He needed to win an important tournament. The Spaniard realized he was getting closer and closer to the top of his game ever since his return to the game last summer after his long absence with tendinitis in his knees. When you examine his record since he came back last August, you discover that in the eleven events he had played (he had lost in two events last spring before the injury) Nadal had been in two finals, six semifinals, and two quarterfinals. Only once--- at the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London--- did Nadal fail to make a good showing. He lost all three of his round robin matches in London.

The other crucial thing about Monte Carlo is that Nadal spent so little time on court in his five matches. He needed to conserve energy since he has at least two more clay court tournaments on his schedule before he returns to Roland Garros. He is attempting to win Barcelona this week for the sixth year in a row. He plans to play in Rome the following week, and then take a week off before Madrid. Nadal played that same schedule last year and it destroyed him for the French Open. There are some rumors out there now that Nadal might withdraw from Madrid. He may base that decision at least in part on how well he does in Barcelona and Rome. But if he wins both tournaments--- or wins one and makes the final of the other--- he should indeed stay away from Madrid. That is too much tennis, too much wear and tear, and more aggravation than he needs. Nadal wants to keep his knees healthy and hid mind fresh to make certain he is fully prepared for Roland Garros. But he did himself a huge favor by winning so swiftly and emphatically every time he stepped on the court in Monte Carlo.

He must feel awfully upbeat at the moment. He played top of the line tennis in Monte Carlo, striking the ball cleanly, serving reasonably well, covering the court better than he has for a considerable period of time. He got just the start he wanted on the clay. He resumed his winning ways, cut down three significant Spanish rivals (in Ferrero, Ferrer and Verdasco), and won a tournament he wanted very badly. Rafael Nadal is ascendant once more, and that is not the best of news for everyone else.

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