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Steve Flink: Nadal Captures First Title Of 2011

4/17/2011 10:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

We all like our champions to perform majestically in finals. It is always a pleasure to watch the great ones finish off tournaments in style, and a joy to see the best players seizing control of big matches with a sureness and command of their craft that can be next to impossible for an opponent to answer. At times like that, the towering competitors soar above and beyond their adversaries to another level, recording victories that are seldom in doubt, taking championships with unshakable inner conviction, turning Sunday afternoons into showcases for their creativity and match playing genius.

Ever since he rose to the forefront of the game in 2005, Spain’s almost ineffable Rafael Nadal has written more than his share of Sunday afternoon masterpieces. Yesterday, however, was not one of them. Nadal took on his tenacious countryman David Ferrer in the final of the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, and the world No. 1 was as apprehensive as I have ever seen him in a championship match. He had good reason for his atypical anxiety. Nadal was not only trying to win this prestigious ATP World Tour Masters 1000 crown for an unthinkable seventh year in a row, but he was also seeking to garner his first tournament win of 2011, and hoping to secure his first championship since capturing Tokyo last October. He had played six tournaments since then, falling in three finals, bowing to Novak Djokovic in the recent title round duels at Indian Wells and Miami, losing despite taking the opening set in each of those recent battles.

Clearly, Nadal was not an unencumbered man as he confronted Ferrer on the red clay of Monte Carlo. In his mind, this was a tournament he could not afford to lose, a title he had to have, a moment he had to seize. Losing that pair of skirmishes with Djokovic was jarring and a considerable blow to his pride and self belief. He knew that no matter how he might rationalize it if he did not topple Ferrer, even a close and hard fought defeat would be unacceptable. He could deal with a defeat somewhere else on the clay court circuit en route to Roland Garros, but not in Monte Carlo where he sorely wanted to jumpstart his season and reacquire the mysterious art of securing tournaments.

Nadal knew full well how crucial winning Monte Carlo had been for him twice in recent years. In 2008, he came there having not won a title since Stuttgart the previous July, and victory on the clay reignited him. He would add seven more titles in 2008 including a fourth French Open crown and triumphs at Wimbledon and the Olympic Games. In that span, Nadal arrived for the first time at No. 1 in the world. Last year, Nadal had endured an eleven month drought when he headed into Monte Carlo, and that triumph was his first of seven championships he would garner in his finest year ever as a tennis player, which featured a second title run at Wimbledon and a first at the U.S. Open. For the second time in three years, Nadal concluded a season unequivocally at No. 1 in the world.

Nadal also mentions that it was at Monte Carlo in 2003 as a 16-year-old that he qualified and won two matches in the main draw before losing to Guillermo Coria and broke into the top 100 in the world for the first time. After bowing against Coria that year, Nadal had collected 36 consecutive match victories in Monte Carlo, and he was determined not to allow that streak to end when he clashed against Ferrer, who had not lost a set all week and was playing the most convincing clay court tennis of his career. Moreover, Nadal—who owned an 11-4 career winning record over Ferrer including eight wins in a row over his friend and rival on clay—had been upended by his compatriot this year in a straight set quarterfinal at the Australian Open after suffering an early match leg injury that hampered him decidedly for the rest of the match.

So did Nadal have ample incentive to defeat Ferrer and rediscover the taste of a tournament victory? You bet he did. But Nadal in some ways may have wanted this match too badly, and his problems were compounded by a Ferrer who played a nearly immaculate tactical match. Ferrer sensed that Nadal was unsettled, and he was very adept at imposing his own game plan. The 29-year-old took his two-handed backhand as early as possible and drove it sharply crosscourt time and again, forcing Nadal to hit his forehand on the dead run. Ferrer opened up the court with that telling shot, and when he got short balls on his backhand he came in down the line and volleyed magnificently. His low forehand volley was particularly impressive. Nadal tested him with dipping backhand passing shots, but Ferrer stayed down beautifully on his low volleys, and displayed excellent touch in the forecourt.

Moreover, Ferrer recognized that Nadal was not stepping inside the court with his customary frequency to send heavy topspin and flattened out forehands to every part of the court. Nadal was so tight that he remained behind the baseline constantly and looked to steal points with his excellent defense. But Ferrer was taking the initiative whenever possible, winning and losing points the right way: with sensible and well calculated aggression. Nadal did not dictate from the backcourt nearly as often as he would have liked, and his defensive posture was at times quite costly.

Nonetheless, Nadal was ever calm and purposeful, and he largely had control of the score if not the agenda in the first set. At 0-1, Nadal trailed 15-40, but he held on by adding length to his shots, closing out that game with an inside out forehand winner. Nadal broke Ferrer in the following game as Ferrer connected with only one out of five first serves, and the favorite went to 40-15 at 2-1, only to miss a routine crosscourt forehand. Ferrer managed to break back for 2-2 with a drop shot winner off the forehand that Nadal chose not to chase.

And yet in the following game, Nadal broke Ferrer by scampering forward swiftly to reach a backhand drop shot, rolling a winner past his helpless opponent. Nadal was back up a break at 3-2, but still struggling inordinately. In the sixth game, a double fault put Nadal down 0-40 but after three deuces he held on for 4-2, catching Ferrer off guard with a deep first serve down the T that was unmanageable.  Ferrer was still having serious problems with his first serve (for the set, he would finish at 33%) but Nadal could not add an insurance break. In turn, Nadal had to work inordinately hard to hold his own serve because he was not swinging the slice serve sufficiently wide in the Ad court, and Ferrer was returning with uncanny depth and consistency.

At 4-3, Nadal was taken to deuce four times and he needed five game points before holding, primarily because he was so uncharacteristically timid off the ground when he had his chances. On the last game point for Nadal, Ferrer drove a forehand into the net. Two games later, Nadal served for the set at 5-4. He did not miss a first serve in that game but his tension remained almost tangible. Nadal opened that game by winning a 25 stroke exchange with a brilliant forehand down the line winner, but Ferrer got to the net capably and put away a forehand volley for 15-15. Nadal released a forehand inside-in winner for 30-15, and a service winner wide to the backhand made it 40-15. Inexplicably, Nadal’s apprehension got the better of him again as he made a backhand unforced error for 40-30, but he sealed the set on the next point with a penetrating forehand crosscourt provoking an errant backhand from Ferrer.

In 75 taxing minutes, Nadal had the set 6-4. He quickly opened up a 0-40 lead on Ferrer’s serve in the first game of the second set, but squandered that opportunity as Ferrer fought off four break points in all to hold for 1-0. Yet Nadal seemed to hit his stride. He held at 15 for 1-1, broke Ferrer with a running forehand down the line winner for 2-1, and held again for 3-1 at love with a barrage of forehands leading to an error, an unstoppable serve, and two clean winners off the forehand. Nadal had won 12 of 15 points in that stretch, and his nervousness seemed behind him.

It was not. Although Nadal held at 15 with another fine service game to make it 4-2, Ferrer quietly stood his ground, and nerves reemerged for Nadal. Serving at 4-3, Nadal advanced to 30-15, but Ferrer gained the upper hand in the next rally, and came in to dispatch a backhand volley winner. Nadal double faulted for 30-40, and then, unrushed, he drove a two-hander well wide. It was 4-4, and Nadal had improbably lost his edge just when it seemed as if he had reestablished his confidence. Ferrer admirably pressed on to hold for 5-4, and Nadal was now serving to stay in the set.

Three points away from a third set, Ferrer had an opening. Nadal was at 15-15 when Ferrer approached with his trademark backhand down the line. Nadal threw up a high defensive lob of average depth, but Ferrer bungled the overhead, hitting it long. Nadal held at 15 for 5-5 with a forehand inside-in winner. At 5-5, Nadal reached break point at 30-40 but sent a forehand return well over the baseline, a glaring mistake at a crucial moment. But Ferrer then double faulted. His first serve on the break point that followed was effective. Nadal’s return was very short, but high bounding. Ferrer went for the forehand down the line but missed it flagrantly.

And so Nadal was serving for the match. He started commandingly with a forehand passing shot winner up the line, but then failed to put away a smash and he lost the next point. At 30-30, Nadal made a delayed approach behind a forehand down the line, putting away a backhand volley down the line. He was at match point, but Ferrer’s backhand crawled off the net cord and fell over. Nadal tried a difficult forehand drop shot that failed, but then he came through with a clutch inside-out forehand winner. At match point for the second time, Nadal did not falter. His crosscourt backhand passing shot was struck solidly, and Ferrer could not handle the low forehand volley. Match to Nadal, 6-4, 7-5. It was his 30th career clay court title, placing the Spaniard in a tie for third place on the all-time Open Era list, behind Guillermo Vilas (45) and Thomas Muster (40). He has moved ahead of the great Bjorn Borg, and that is no mean feat. The guess here is that Nadal will almost surely break Vilas’s record when he reaches his late twenties. The challenge is to make the most of his opportunities; Nadal plays only four to five clay court events a year.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray broke out of a distressing slump and his play in Monte Carlo was first rate across the board. Murray had not won even a set in three matches since his straight set loss to Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open final, bowing against Marcos Baghdatis in Rotterdam, losing badly to Donald Young at Indian Wells, and going down to an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Alexander Bogomolov,Jr. in Miami. His clay court history has been less than impressive even though he has the game to do well on that surface.

In Monte Carlo, Murray rediscovered his game and his brighter state of mind. He achieved his first match victory since January when he toppled Radek Stepanek in the second round, and then cut down Gilles Simon and Frederico Gil to make the semifinals. On the day of his meeting with Nadal last Saturday, Murray’s elbow was hurting so badly that he considered defaulting before opting for a cortisone injection. That was wise. Murray played an inspired match against the greatest clay court player in the sport’s history. Observing him in that riveting contest, it was has hard to imagine how he ever lost to the likes of Young and Bogomolov, Jr.

Murray’s ball striking was exemplary off both sides. The tennis on both sides of the net in this one was at times out of this world. It was reminiscent in many ways of the display put on by Nadal and Murray in their last meeting at London in the semifinals of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in November of 2010, a match that Nadal captured narrowly 7-6(5), 3-6, 7-6(6) indoors. For two sets, this encounter was close in quality to the classic in London. Both men returned stupendously on the clay. Nadal looked to keep Murray at bay with a barrage of thundering forehands, but Murray countered beautifully with some impeccably timed flat two-handed backhands crosscourt. Murray’s forehand also held up remarkably well as Nadal probed in search of a weakness that was miniscule on the day.

After losing his serve in the opening game of the match as Murray took charge off the backhand, Nadal swept four games in a row, but it was not easy for the Spaniard. He reached 3-1 in a strenuous deuce game, and held for 4-1 in a hard fought two deuce game. Murray knew he was swinging freely and playing with the aggression he needed, but he was losing the critical points. Nevertheless, he got back into the set by taking three games in a row. Murray’s resilience in this period was outstanding. He held for 2-4 easily, broke Nadal in the following game as Nadal was off the mark with an inside-out forehand at 30-40, and then prevailed in a grueling five deuce game to make it to 4-4, saving two break points. Murray out-steadied Nadal in a 28 stroke exchange in that game, and his strategy of taking calculated risks was working.

Yet Nadal was not thrown off stride. He held on for 5-4 and then broke Murray by elevating his game when the stakes were high, thwarting Murray as has so often at propitious moments in the past. Had Nadal converted on a break point he had for 2-0 in the second set, he might well have surged to a straight set triumph. But Murray saved that break point with gusto. Nadal drilled a backhand pass right at him, but Murray manufactured a reflex forehand drop volley winner to escape from danger. After three deuces, he made it to 1-1. Nadal is an astounding front runner who had a 434-23 record in his career after winning the opening set as he contested this match. Murray had his work fully cut out for him.

The British No. 1 was up to the task. He broke Nadal for 2-1 and then took an eight deuce game to hold for 3-1, fighting off five break points in the process. On the last of those break points, Nadal made a backhand unforced error, but Murray played a remarkably good game. In a four deuce game which followed, Nadal squandered a 40-15 lead. Murray broke Nadal by countering a backhand drop shot with a backhand drop shot winner of his own. Murray had a cushion with a two break lead at 4-1 but lost his serve in the following game, yet the Spaniard lost his serve for the third time in the set. At 2-4, he was broken at love, double faulting at 0-40. Murray easily held at 15 for the set. He was back to one set all, but it had taken him no less than 71 minutes to win a 6-2 set!

Nadal had lost that battle, but he soon he would win the war in overwhelming fashion. At the start of the third set, Murray regrettably started holding his elbow and he called for the trainer after the third game. He may well have been legitimately hurting, but why advertise his discomfort? Furthermore, his larger problem was probably not the elbow but his feet. Nadal had worn him out thoroughly in that debilitating second set, and Murray had little left for the third. Nadal, meanwhile, looked sprightly and fresh, as if he had been competing for no more than 33 minutes. Nadal held at love for 1-0 in the final set with a crosscourt winner off the forehand.

The tone had been set. Nadal broke Murray at 30 for 2-0 with typically perspicacious play. Nadal had been feeding Murray a recipe of heavy, high topspin forehands but then he lowered the trajectory of a forehand crosscourt and made Murray dig for the low ball. Murray sent a backhand slice into the net. Nadal was in charge again, this time for good. He held at love for 3-0, closing that game with an ace. Murray had 40-15 in the fourth game, but Nadal struck back persistently and moved to 4-0. Nadal had Murray completely at his mercy, but at 4-0, 30-15 he missed an easy overhead, and then dropped that game on serve.

Nadal was not worried. He broke at love for 5-1, then held at love with some blazing forehands for a 6-4, 2-6, 6-1 win in two hours and 58 minutes. Murray had faded visibly at the end, but the fact remains that he made immense strides in Monte Carlo and played some scintillating tennis against Nadal. Murray has never looked better on a clay court. The hope here is that the elbow injury is not serious so he can keep winning his share of matches on the clay and eventually head into Wimbledon feeling the way he should about himself.

Roger Federer has his own issues to confront these days. Federer had been comprehensively dismissed by Nadal in the semifinals of his last tournament in Miami, but had prepared well for Monte Carlo as he shifted onto the clay. He routinely accounted for Philipp Kohlschreiber and Marin Cilic in his first two matches, and had a 3-0 career head-to-head record against Jurgen Melzer before they did battle in the wind at Monte Carlo. Federer had not lost a set to Melzer in those previous collisions at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and indoors at Paris in 2010.

But Melzer knows what he is doing on any surface, and is entirely comfortable on clay, as he demonstrated a year ago in reaching the semifinals of Roland Garros by climbing from two sets down to defeat Djokovic in the last eight. Melzer knew precisely what he wanted to do in this appointment with Federer. He drilled his two-handed backhand crosscourt with impressive force and depth, challenging the Swiss on his stronger forehand side. Meanwhile, Melzer got the better of Federer when he sent his lefty forehand crosscourt to hurt Federer on his backhand side. Melzer hit through the wind exceedingly well, and he fought off all seven break points he faced in the match. He was fearless, but Federer was fragile, beating himself with unprovoked mistakes, not recouping well after falling behind.

At 2-2 in the first set, Federer was broken at 15. The first two points of that game symbolized his plight as Melzer forced him into errors on the running wide forehand. Federer got back to 15-30 but Melzer took the initiative to win the next two points by drawing more mistakes from a listless Federer. Now up a break at 3-2, Melzer trailed 15-40 but his kick serve to the forehand forced Federer into a return error. Federer then tried to run around his backhand for a forehand return down the line, but drove it into the net. The Swiss had a third break point, but Melzer erased that one with an inside-out forehand approach that provoked a passing shot error.

Serving for the set at 5-4, Melzer was down break point again at 30-40, but he took advantage of a short return from Federer and ripped a forehand approach down the line. Federer netted a difficult forehand passing shot down the line. A surprisingly composed Melzer held on gamely for the set. In the opening game of the second set, Federer held from 15-40 in the opening game, but at 1-1 he was not as fortunate.  On his second break point, Melzer converted by making Federer play an awkward high backhand that the Swiss rolled into the net.

Melzer held at love for 3-1, but in his next service game was in trouble. Federer had two break points to make it back to 3-3, but he netted a backhand return off an extraordinarily deep second serve from Melzer. On the second break point against him, Melzer took a short return from Federer and rifled a forehand winner up the line. Melzer moved to 4-2 with a neatly executed backhand drop volley winner. With Melzer serving at 4-3, Federer had his seventh and final break point chance, but was denied when he missed a good opening for a forehand inside out winner. Serving for the match at 5-4, Melzer moved to 40-15 by releasing a well executed drop shot approach that set up a forehand volley winner. Federer saved one match point, but Melzer closed it out on his second. He has now beaten Djokovic, Nadal and Federer in the last eleven months, a considerable accomplishment to say the least.

Melzer beat Ferrer twice last year, but in Monte Carlo Ferrer was too good after falling behind a break in the first set. Melzer did not look like the same player who had ushered Federer out of the tournament, and all credit goes to Ferrer. The Spaniard kept making Melzer play high balls on his backhand side, and he never let the Austrian get any rhythm. Melzer largely self destructed against an unerring Ferrer, who rolled to a 6-3, 6-2 victory. Ferrer did not drop a set all week until he ran into a man named Nadal, and that eventually was that.

Nadal’s capturing Monte Carlo seven years in a row is a feat probably only he could realized. Monte Carlo is not Roland Garros, and a Masters 1000 event is not a major. But the fact remains that Monte Carlo is one of the premier clay court tournaments, one of the three or four biggest on that surface. No one has any business winning a tournament of this stature so many times in a row. But then again, there has not been anyone quite like Nadal ever before in the history of tennis, and we may not see a similarly indefatigable figure with his charisma ever again.

Nadal was not simply fighting David Ferrer in the final of Monte Carlo. He was battling himself, and for him that must have been the most foreign of feelings. A part of him was afraid he might lose. He knew he lacked his customary sense of self. He was uncomfortable in many ways. But Nadal came through in the end despite his uncharacteristic insecurity. It was inspiring to watch him get out of his own way in the end, and get on with his clay court mastery. He has won 29 consecutive clay court matches since his fourth round setback against Robin Soderling in 2009 at Roland Garros. He has an astounding clay court career match record of 208 wins against only 16 losses. He has his first title of 2011.

Rafael Nadal is right where he wants to be, ready to celebrate another banner year on clay. When he wins Monte Carlo, the sky is historically the limit.

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