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Steve Flink: Nadal Watch

5/3/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink 

Every time we move into the heart of the clay court season--- while the leading players fine tune their games in preparation for the French Open, as the European season intensifies on the dirt--- I get back into familiar territory. I focus almost entirely on one player who has separated himself from the pack, ruling comprehensively on his favorite surface, leaving his rivals disheartened and befuddled. At this time of the year, I go on “ Nadal Watch”, and thus far this season I’ve liked what I have seen, and I’ve seen what I’ve liked. Rafael Nadal is right where he wants to be after capturing back to back ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crowns in Monte Carlo and Rome. The clay court master has not yet peaked on his turf, but he is playing terrific tennis, reacquiring the habit of winning, and asserting his authority with supreme mental toughness and the kind of physicality no one in the game can match.

Nadal secured a fifth Italian Open title in Rome, conceding only one set in five matches, losing his serve only once in eleven sets over the course of another productive week. Nadal appears to be superbly fit, absolutely focused, in control of his own destiny. Relentlessly efficient, dogged in pursuit of his goals, clear minded and purposeful every time he steps on the court, the Spaniard is clearly on a mission to reclaim his status as the best tennis player in the world. He has made the right precautionary moves to protect his knees, pulling out of Barcelona to rest the week after Monte Carlo, returning in Rome, taking this week off, finishing up his Roland Garros preparation in Madrid. After that, he gets another week off prior to the French Open. He has never scheduled himself more intelligently for the clay campaign, and the essential rest he is getting now could be immensely beneficial for Nadal in the crucial weeks and months ahead.

In the final of Rome, Nadal took on compatriot David Ferrer under the worst possible conditions. Rain was falling from the outset of the contest, and Nadal is always a much happier man and a more daunting competitor when a hot sun is shining and speeding up the court. His topspin forehand bounds much higher. His spirits soar. He makes his adversaries feel his presence even more when the temperature rises. On scorching days under blue skies and a potent sun, Nadal is as intimidating a player as there is on the planet. He has enjoyed many afternoons like that in Rome, but the weather was gloomy when he faced Ferrer, and Nadal’s shots were not jumping off the court as much as he would have liked.

Nonetheless, the 23-year-old lefty was creating opportunities for himself despite the precipitation that may have been hindering his play. At 2-2 in the first set of his skirmish with Ferrer, Nadal had Ferrer down 15-40, but Ferrer battled out of that corner. He pulled Nadal wide to the lefty’s two hander with a well placed slice serve, and Rafa miss-hit the return. At 30-40, Ferrer went wide to Nadal’s forehand with another strategically directed first serve, and once more Nadal could not make the return. Three more times, Nadal reached break point in that game, but his cautiously struck returns lacked depth. Ferrer—in a fittingly aggressive frame of mind—seized the initiative and held on for 3-2. Nadal’s timidity cost him at that stage.

Ferrer was serving at 4-4, 40-15 when rain halted play for the first time. When the match resumed, Ferrer held on for 5-4, and went to 0-30 on Nadal’s serve in the critical tenth game of the opening set. For Ferrer to win the match, he desperately needed to take the first set. At 0-30, with a chance to reach 0-40 and triple set point, he ran around his backhand in the deuce court to play a forehand return, but lost control of the shot and sent it into the net. On the following point, Ferrer netted a backhand drop shot. Nadal gamely held for 5-5.

The eleventh game was almost as important. Three times, Ferrer advanced to game point, but Nadal’s obstinacy denied Ferrer the chance to close that game out. On the last of his game points, Ferrer double faulted. Nadal finally got the break for 6-5 as Ferrer drove an inside-out forehand into the net. Serving for the set in the twelfth game, Nadal was given no free pass by his opponent. Nadal was down break point, but he unleashed an excellent wide slice serve to Ferrer’s weaker backhand wing, and Ferrer could not make a difficult return. Nadal then opened up the court for a forehand volley winner, and moments later he sealed the set.

Nadal went up a break at 2-1 in the second set, but rain intervened again. Returning to the court for the last time with rain no longer falling and the lights on, he finished his business with his most uninhibited tennis of the match. At game point for 3-1, Nadal released a blazing, flat backhand down the line for an outright winner. Ferrer held in the next game, but thereafter Nadal was overwhelming, sweeping 12 of the last 17 points to close out a 7-5, 6-2 triumph. Serving at 2-4, 15-15, Ferrer double faulted twice to trail 15-40, then pressed on an inside-out forehand and drove it long. Nadal confidently served out the match at 15. In the end, he broke down Ferrer’s backhand with the severity of his angled topspin forehand. Down the stretch, Nadal was decidedly better and more versatile than his opponent.

While Nadal was tested in the championship match, his toughest confrontation of the tournament was his semifinal against the enormously impressive Ernests Gulbis, the 21-year-old from Latvia who had toppled world No. 1 Roger Federer in the second round. Gulbis had made Nadal uncomfortable in the past on other surfaces, pushing the Spaniard to four arduous sets at Wimbledon in 2008 (Nadal’s championship year at the All England Club) and taking another set off Nadal later that year indoors. But I was skeptical that Gulbis could make such a deep impression against his rival on the red clay. I could not have been more wrong.

At the outset, it was business as usual for Nadal. Gulbis was full of apprehension. In the opening game of the contest, he double faulted at 30-3. On the next point, seemingly preoccupied with avoiding Nadal’s forehand, he sent a two-hander wide down the line. Nadal had the immediate break. But he squandered a lot of additional openings the rest of the way in that set. With Gulbis serving at 1-3, Nadal had three break points but Gulbis escaped with some clutch serving on the big points. Gulbis was in another serious bind at 2-4. In that long seventh game, Gulbis put in no fewer than 16 of 18 first serves but Nadal should still have broken him. The Spaniard had a break point for 5-2 but inexplicably drove a routine forehand wildly beyond the baseline.

Nevertheless, Nadal served out the set at 5-4 despite facing two break points, saving one with a service winner to the forehand, averting the other when Gulbis drove a two-hander long. Nadal had the set 6-4, and his boosters fully expected him to accelerate to another level and run out the match in straight sets. He had done a skillful job of exploiting the inconsistency of the Gulbis forehand, serving unswervingly to that side on big points, directing most of his traffic from the baseline to the forehand as well.

But Nadal was unusually uptight, and Gulbis sensed it. Serving at 0-1 in the second set, Nadal was down break point but he got out of that jam with yet another un-returnable serve to the forehand. Nadal moved to game point, only to miss a routine backhand. Facing a second break point, Nadal went for one of his trademark inside-out forehands off a short ball, but missed it badly. Nadal had lost his serve for the first time all week and Gulbis was off and running. Now the Latvian was relaxed and confident, serving brilliantly down the T in the deuce court, keeping Nadal at bay with the velocity of his delivery, consistently staying in the range of 130 to 135 MPH. Nadal, in turn, lost conviction in his forehand and became too passive. He was strangely out of sorts.

Gulbis charged to 5-2 and had a set point on Nadal’s serve in the eighth game. Nadal realized the importance of winning that point, and knew that he did not want to allow Gulbis to start serving in the final set. The Spaniard lured Gulbis into an error off the backhand with a devastatingly potent topspin forehand crosscourt. Nadal managed to hold, but Gulbis answered with an easy hold at 15 in the following game. It was one set all, and Nadal knew full well he was in a real dogfight with a player who was not the least bit afraid of him.

In the first game of the third set, Nadal found himself at break point down, but he asserted himself tellingly at that juncture. Nadal added weight and depth to his crosscourt forehand, and Gulbis missed off the backhand. When Nadal held on for 1-0, his demonstrative fist pump was revealing; the Spaniard wanted this match, and he wanted it very badly. But Gulbis was not ceding any ground. Both men held easily until Gulbis served at 2-3. He was down 0-40 in that memorable sixth game, with Nadal poised to break and move permanently out of reach. Gulbis, however, had other notions. He got back to deuce with a service winner wide to the backhand, a forehand winner off a short return from Nadal, and another service winner--- this one wide to Nadal’s forehand in the Ad court.

It was deuce. Nadal earned a fourth break point, which Gulbis erased with a touch of class. Nadal rolled a backhand pass low crosscourt, and Gulbis responded with a delicate and elegant forehand drop volley winner. Gulbis gamely held on for 3-3, then served his way to 4-4. Inconceivably, deep in the final set, Gulbis was on level terms with Nadal. At 15-30 in the ninth game, Nadal was six points away from a jarring defeat. He chased down a drop shot from Gulbis, got good pace on his backhand crosscourt approach, and Gulbis netted a forehand pass down the line. At 30-30, Nadal coaxed a backhand error from Gulbis with another stinging crosscourt forehand. Then Nadal provoked another error off the backhand from Gulbis, and he was ahead 5-4.

Now the long afternoon finally seemed to catch up with Gulbis. Serving at 4-5, he tried the backhand drop shot down the line again. For much of the match, he had used that shot sensibly and judiciously, but now he lost his way. Gulbis approached behind his drop shot, but Nadal tracked it down quickly and his backhand pass crosscourt was too much for the Latvian to handle on the low forehand volley. 0-15. On the next point, Gulbis seemed to suffer from a brain cramp, floating a forehand drop shot crosscourt that hung too long in the air. Nadal calmly rolled a backhand down the line for a winner. Two points away from winning a wrenching encounter, Nadal played a brilliant defensive point, and Gulbis cracked, missing a crosscourt forehand to make it 0-40. It was over moments later as Gulbis sent a two-hander down the line wide. Nadal had swept the last seven points in a row after drifting to within six points of defeat. It was a clutch performance from a man who could not afford to lose that match or his clay court momentum.

But Gulbis took another significant step toward the territory of the elite. He is going to be in the world’s top 20 very soon, and will take his place among the top ten by the end of this year. He has demonstrated that he can compete against anyone in the world on any surface; he is that good, and he will get even better.  In achieving his first win over Federer in only their second career meeting, Gulbis followed up on the good work he has done all year long, and not even a serious anxiety attack at the end could stop him from prevailing. Federer took the first set 6-2, but Gulbis retaliated by winning the second 6-1.

The third set was highly unpredictable and suspenseful. With Federer having terrible serving woes and losing his range completely off the forehand, Gulbis took control. Gulbis was dominating his service games with both his velocity and placement, and he moved in front 5-3. Federer was serving in the ninth game at 15-40, double match point down. On the first match point, Gulbis bungled a backhand return wide off an unremarkable second serve kicker. Then Gulbis had Federer at his mercy, only to drive a forehand down the line long with the court wide open.

Federer missed all eight first serves in that game, but still held. At 5-4, Gulbis was up double match point at 40-15, but he panicked, going for a huge second serve and double faulting. At 40-30, Gulbis missed a two-hander as Federer threw in a soft backhand slice. He had squandered four match points. Now he got to match point for the fifth time, but sent a forehand long with the court at his disposal. An ace gave Gulbis a sixth match point, but he threw that one away with another double fault as he went foolishly for an ace down the T. Federer broke back for 5-5.

The world No. 1 had survived a storm, but he was not out of danger. Federer had another dismal service game, missing five of six first serves, getting broken when he made a costly unforced mistake off the forehand. Serving for the match a second time at 6-5, Gulbis connected with three out of four first serves and held at love to get the victory 2-6, 6-1, 7-5. Federer had opened up his clay court campaign later than usual, skipping Monte Carlo, waiting for Rome to play his first event on the dirt. After failing to reach the quarterfinals of either Indian Wells or Miami, Federer was plainly short of match play. Gulbis exploited the situation to the hilt, and then held off Italy’s Filippo Volandri in a third set tie-breaker and bested Feliciano Lopez in straight sets before bowing to Nadal.

It was another rough week for both world No. 2 Novak Djokovic and No. 4 seed Andy Murray. Murray lost in straight sets to Ferrer. To be sure, Ferrer is much surer of himself on clay courts, and he knew Murray has been mired in a deep slump since losing to Federer in the final of the Australian Open. Murray never broke Ferrer in the match and made good on only 41% of his first serves; the combination of the poor serving and the ineffective returning did Murray in. As for Djokovic, for the second Masters 1000 event in a row, he was beaten by Fernando Verdasco. In Monte Carlo, and off form and disjointed Djokovic lost to the Spaniard 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals. When they met last week again in Rome, the two men staged a much cleaner, higher quality contest which lasted three hours and    minutes.

Djokovic competed hard and well. Verdasco served twice for the first set at 5-4 and 6-5 but was denied by the Serbian’s fine returns and penetrating ground strokes. But, with Djokovic serving at 4-4 in the tie-break, Verdasco clipped the line with a sharply angled forehand winner. He took the next two points on serve to win that set. Djokovic revived admirably to capture the second set, but Verdasco got an early break in the third and came through 7-6 (4), 3-6, 6-3 for one of his finest victories. Yet Verdasco was spent. He had reached the final of Monte Carlo and had won Barcelona. He led 5-1 in the first set against Ferrer but totally ran out of energy and even resolve. Ferrer took eight games in a row and won 7-5, 6-3.

In the end, Verdasco had a good week in Rome, and Ferrer had a great week. But the best week of all was celebrated by none other than Rafael Nadal. Nadal had a few anxious moments on the Italian clay—particularly in his stirring duel with Gulbis--- but he reminded everyone that as long as he remains healthy and free of injuries, whenever he is confident and in command of his game, he is in a class of his own on the surface he loves the most.

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