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Steve Flink: Nadal Back Where He Belongs

7/4/2010 12:59:00 PM


By Steve Flink

WIMBLEDON---  As I made my way out to the All England Club to watch Rafael Nadal take on Tomas Berdych in today’s men’s final, it occurred to me that a victory for the dynamic Spaniard would in essence be tantamount to poetic justice. Let me explain. From the spring of 2008 through the winter of 2009, Nadal had established himself unequivocally as the game’s authentic champion. In that span, he had toppled Roger Federer in the finals of the 2008 French Open and Wimbledon finals, and had then beaten Federer for the third time in a row at the majors in a five set Australian Open final at the start of 2009. That triumph gave Nadal six major titles in his column, and his growing authority was making all keen students of tennis history wonder whether he might be on his way to surpassing the majestic Federer on the all time Grand Slam ladder.

Federer, of course, had 13 majors in his collection at that time, but the Swiss knew that Nadal was a player for whom he did not have a solution. Moreover, Federer understood that Nadal--- like himself--- was a competitor born and made for the big occasion, a champion through and through, and a man with the widest possible range of ambition. But everything went wrong for Nadal in the middle of 2009. He suffered his one and only loss at Roland Garros to Robin Soderling in the round of 16, and then, preoccupied with the divorce of his parents and a pair of bad knees, Nadal did not come back to defend the Wimbledon title he had won in five glorious sets over Federer. He returned in August, but was never the same player the rest of 2009. Coming into the clay court season this year, skeptics wondered if the essential Nadal would ever reemerge. He had not won a tournament since the Italian Open of 2009, and had suffered many indignities along the way.

But then Nadal demonstrated his astonishing character and resilience, his pride and his perspicacity. The man who must be considered the best clay court player ever dominated on that surface with his finest season yet on the dirt, capturing three Masters 1000 crowns in a row at Monte Carlo, Rome and Madrid, and winning his fifth French Open, avenging his loss to Soderling with an emphatic straight set win in the final. Despite an inconsequential loss at Queen’s Club to countryman Feliciano Lopez, Nadal came roaring into Wimbledon, seeded second behind Federer but looking like the favorite in the eyes of many learned observers. Despite being pushed unexpectedly to five sets in the second and third rounds by Robin Haase and Philipp Petzschner, Nadal got his bearings, dispatched Paul-Henri Mathieu with ease, stopped Soderling in four sets, and then put on a clutch performance that ranks right up there among his best big point displays when he ousted No. 4 seed Andy Murray in a straight set semifinal.

So there was Nadal today, back where he belonged on the storied Centre Court, trying to extend his winning streak against the No. 12 seed Berdych to seven matches in a row. Once Nadal walked on the court for this confrontation, he must have known the elements were in his favor. Not only was this his tenth Grand Slam tournament final--- while it was the first for the 6’5” man from the Czech Republic--- but at the start the sun was shining brightly and the wind was blowing hard in the Centre Court. Nadal loves playing in the sun on warm days when his topspin bounds higher, and he can cope with the wind as well as anyone in tennis. Berdych is one of the game’s biggest hitters, driving the ball ferociously off both sides with his flat strokes. But he does not have much margin for error with his strokes, and has always had problems in the wind.

At the outset, Berdych did not seem to let the conditions or the importance of the occasion unsettle him that much. He came out serving well, holding at love in the opening game, missing only one first serve. Nadal responded with a love game of his own, and both players protected their deliveries well through the first six games of the contest. Up until 3-3, Berdych was keeping Nadal at bay with his serve. In his first three service games, he won 12 of 14 points. But starting in the sixth game, Nadal went to work in a big way. He raced to 40-0 with an ace down the T in the deuce court, lost the next two points, but then moved to 3-3 on his third game point with the serve that carried him all match long. Swinging his first serve with heavy slice wide to the backhand, Nadal forced Berdych to miss a difficult return at full stretch.

At 3-3, down 0-15, Berdych drove his two-hander down the line off Nadal’s return and missed it by a considerable margin, groaning in dismay at his mistake. Then Nadal made a short return which Berdych ripped deep to the forehand side of the Spaniard. On the dead run, Nadal flicked one of his trademark forehand passing shots down the line for a dazzling winner to reach 0-40. Berdych saved one break point, but at 15-40 he did not pull Nadal wide enough with a second serve to the backhand. Nadal rolled a gorgeous return crosscourt, which Berdych could not handle on the run off his forehand side. Nadal had the break for 4-3, then held at love for 5-3, closing out that game with another scorching topspin winner off the forehand behind Berdych.
 
Now serving to save the set, an unraveling Berdych trailed 15-40, served an ace, but was broken at 30. Nadal caught him off guard with a forehand down the line on the second set point, and Berdych had to play a sliced forehand, which he sent into the net. On a run of four consecutive games, taking 16 of 21 points in the process, Nadal had changed what looked to be a close set and had run away with it comprehensively. He was right where he wanted to be, up by a set, seemingly read to take complete control of the match.

Yet Nadal played a largely abysmal game on his serve to open the second set. In many ways, it was the most significant game of the match, giving Berdych a chance to feel that he might work his way back into the battle and make his presence known. Serving in that first game of that set, Nadal became inexplicably tense and uneasy, but with typical grittiness he refused to let it get away. On his way to a 30-40 deficit, he made three unforced errors off the forehand, two of them glaring mistakes. At 30-40, however, he was fearless, cracking a first serve at 120 MPH to the forehand, drawing a short return from Berdych, then driving his forehand with conviction behind Berdych for a clean winner. A double fault put Nadal down break point for the second time, but a vicious slice serve wide to the backhand was more than Berdych could manage. His return was wide down the line.

More work remained for Nadal. He smothered a forehand crosscourt on the next point into the net, and faced a third break point, but Nadal took a short return from his opponent, approached on the forehand side of his adversary and Berdych missed his running passing shot down the line. Nadal moved to game point, only to double fault again, but once more he refused to dwell on his mistakes. Nadal drove a penetrating forehand crosscourt to set up an inside-out forehand winner, and then hit a deep sliced backhand down the middle, luring Berdych into an errant forehand. He had held on for 1-0, winning his fifth game in a row.

Nadal still struggled somewhat through the early stages of the second set. Both men backed up their serves well in this stretch. On his way to 4-4 in the second set, Berdych won 16 of 19 points on his serve, while Nadal cast aside his early set nerves and held on with relative ease himself. In his next three service games after the opening game anxiety, Nadal lost only four points. But the feeling grew among experienced followers of the sport that Berdych would feel the weight of his opponent’s reputation as the two players moved deeper into the second set. At 4-4, Nadal played an excellent game on his serve, holding at love, making three of four first serves, closing that game with a 126 MPH first serve to the forehand that was unmanageable for Berdych.

Berdych steadied his nerves ably at 4-5, holding at 15 with an ace on game point. But Nadal at the end of crucial and long sets is unshakable. Serving at 5-5, 40-30, he challenged Berdych out wide to his forehand with an inside-out forehand of his own. Berdych understandably went for broke, but his running forehand down the line attempt for a winner ended up in the net tape. Now Berdych served to save the set for a second time at 5-6, but despite connecting with three out of four first serves, the big man was broken at love. On three of the four points, Nadal sent soft backhand slices to the Berdych forehand, daring his adversary to create his own pace. Every time, Berdych missed off his more vulnerable side.

And so Nadal had avoided the need for a tie-break, taking the second set 7-5 with typically astute tactical play, establishing a commanding two sets to love lead. Berdych had one last chance to make an impression early in the third, reaching break point with Nadal serving at 1-1. The two competitors became engaged in a battle of backhand slices, but Berdych eventually made an error. Nadal held on for 2-1, but to his credit Berdych kept competing hard. Up until 4-4 in that third set, Berdych had won 16 of 20 points on serve. But, once more, it was Nadal who elevated his game in the latter stages of a set. At 4-4, Nadal held at love, closing that game with a forehand down the line winner and a service winner to Berdych’s forehand.

For Berdych, the propitious moment had arrived: he was serving to stay in the match. Berdych was down 0-30, but won the next three points. At 40-30, he thought his second serve was going to be sufficient to win the point, but Nadal’s exceedingly deep return caught Berdych on his heels. Berdych, flat-footed and confounded, could only stand there and watch as Nadal followed with a forehand down the line winner. It was deuce. Nadal--- so persistent all match long at making sure to get as many returns as possible back into play off big first serves--- chipped a backhand return low, and Berdych missed the forehand approach well over the baseline. Suddenly, the underdog was down match point, and he elected to come in on Nadal’s forehand. Nadal drove an immaculate forehand passing shot into a wide open space, and thus fittingly completed a 6-3, 7-5, 6-4 triumph that gave him a richly deserved second Wimbledon championship crown.

Nadal admitted later that he felt unusually tense during this final, realizing how deeply he wanted to win it. He had a few patches off the forehand, missed some sliced backhands he would customarily make, had that tough time at the start of the second set. But the fact remained that he served terrifically. He never lost his serve, connecting with 69% of his first serves, winning 77% in that category. He backed up his second serve so adeptly that he won 64% of those points. He fought off all four break points he faced, and converted four of six break points opportunities he had against Berdych. That was remarkable in light of the fact that Berdych was broken only once by Roger Federer in the quarterfinals and once by Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round.

So Nadal has come full circle from his misery of a year ago. He has taken his second major title in a row, pulling off the French Open-Wimbledon double for the second time in three years. More importantly, he has raised his historical stature by claiming an eighth Grand Slam championship. He now has tied Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Ivan Lendl, Fred Perry and Ken Rosewall with his eight majors, taking his second Grand Slam championship on the grass to go along with the one he has captured on hard courts, and the five big ones on the Paris clay. Federer, of course, holds the men’s record with 16 majors, followed by Pete Sampras (14), Roy Emerson (12), and Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg (11).

That puts Nadal in a tie for sixth place on the all time list. How much higher can he climb? He has a good chance to eventually pass Laver and Borg, and he could well move beyond Emerson. In fact, I believe he will accomplish at least that much. He is only 24, and has probably three peak years ahead of him. Much will depend on how well his knees held up. He was concerned about the state of his knees during this tournament, and called for the trainer during his five set appointment with Petzschner. That could be the only thing that holds this astounding man back.

For the time being, however, he can feel deeply gratified that he is back precisely where he belongs, pulling way ahead of every rival at No. 1 in the world. He is almost certain to finish the year at No. 1 in the world. In my view, Rafael Nadal is the best value for money we have in this sport. He is indefatigable and highly charged. He is the single greatest competitor I have seen in 45 years of watching top flight tennis. He is an admirable individual who has played his way back from the darkness of his 2009 summer campaign into the bright light of 2010.

The view here is that Rafael Nadal is going to peak again at the U.S. Open, and win there for the first time to record a career Grand Slam. That would make him the first man since Laver in 1969 to sweep the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year. I have a feeling Laver would believe that Nadal would be entirely worthy of such an achievement.

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