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Steve Flink: Barcelona Gets Nadal Back In Style

4/26/2011 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

If I was a professional tennis player out there competing on the red clay en route to Roland Garros, I would want no part of Rafael Nadal. Not now, not yesterday, not tomorrow.  The Spaniard is getting back into his old groove on the dirt, and that is very bad news for all of his opposition. In winning titles the last two weeks in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, he swept ten matches at the cost of only one set. He was entirely worthy of winning a seventh consecutive title in Monte Carlo, and in securing a sixth crown over a seven year span in Barcelona, Nadal was even less vulnerable, conceding only 21 games in ten productive and strikingly efficient sets. I’m sure you wonder why Nadal was only victorious for the sixth time in Barcelona since 2005. What in the world happened to him a year ago? What right did he have to not be the champion? You guessed it: Nadal was taking precautionary action against a possible injury, so he reluctantly pulled out of a tournament he loves.

Had he kept his commitment a year ago in Barcelona, Nadal would have been forced to play three weeks in a row, and that would not have been judicious on his part. But he clearly took great pleasure in returning to his old battleground this year. A revised schedule meant that in 2011 Nadal realized he would have a much needed week off after Barcelona, and that allowed him to conduct his business in a relaxed frame of mind. During the week, Nadal accounted for some first rate players, including Gael Monfils in the quarters, whom the Spaniard summarily dismissed 6-2, 6-2. But the most intriguing assignment for Nadal was his final round duel with David Ferrer.

For the second Sunday in a row, the two Spaniards squared off in a title round contest. Ferrer had pressed an anxiety ridden Nadal hard in the Monte Carlo final before losing 6-4, 7-5. In Barcelona, Ferrer replicated his Monte Carlo feat of making it to the final without the loss of a set. That was impressive, because he knocked out Jurgen Melzer easily for the second week in a row, and then cast aside countryman Nicolas Almagro, an extraordinary clay court player in his own right. Ferrer has long been an under achiever on clay. In the last eight years at Roland Garros, he has only twice advanced to the quarterfinals, and has never moved beyond that juncture. But this year he could well alter that historical pattern; at 29, he is playing the best tennis of his life, even better than he did in his greatest season of 2007, and early in 2008, when he achieved a career zenith at No. 4 in the world.

In any case, Nadal knew that Ferrer had given him a rough time in Monte Carlo, and he wanted to set the tone early as they confronted each other in Barcelona. Nadal did indeed impose himself forcefully after a relatively slow start. Serving at 0-1, 30-40, Nadal erased a break point against him with a well struck serve down the T that Ferrer could not handle off the forehand side. Nadal held on tenaciously for 1-1, and then went to work with characteristic intensity and authority. With Ferrer serving at 1-1, 30-40, Nadal caught his adversary completely off guard, lacing a forehand down the line for an outright winner. Nadal quickly consolidated that break, moving to 3-1 by holding at 15. Now Ferrer knew full well that he was in a bind as Nadal swiftly gathered momentum. Nadal charged to 4-1 by breaking Ferrer at love, taking the last two points of that game with a decisive overhead winner and then another dazzling forehand down the line winner.

Ferrer got one of those breaks back in the following game, but Nadal retaliated immediately. Ferrer had opened the seventh game with an ace, but did not take another point. At 15-40, Ferrer opened up the court with a wide serve to Nadal’s backhand, only to net an easy inside-out forehand. Serving for the set at 5-2, Nadal fell behind 15-40, but promptly swept four points in a row with good strategic serving. On three of those points, Ferrer, one of the sport’s finest return of serve practitioners, was unable to get Nadal’s serves back into play. The favorite had barreled through that set commandingly at 6-2, and was seemingly poised for a quick victory.

Yet it is seldom easy to put David Ferrer away swiftly. In the opening game of the second set, Nadal broke Ferrer with yet another forehand down the line winner, leaving Ferrer thoroughly stranded with that shot. Nadal bolted to 2-0, and had a break point for 3-0. Had he sealed that opening, Nadal would inevitably have pulled away from his rival, but Ferrer belted a forehand down the line for a winner, and held on. He then broke Nadal at love for 2-2 as the left-hander missed three out of four first serves. The next game went to deuce no fewer than six times. Nadal had three break points but Ferrer wiped two of them away with bold winners, and Nadal missed a two-hander badly into the net on the third.

Ferrer was on an impressive roll now. With Nadal serving at 2-3, 15-40, Ferrer hit an acutely angled inside-out forehand that set up the identical shot. He had gone behind Nadal, who could not recover. Ferrer had connected for a brilliant winner with one of his trademark shots, and he had won his fourth game in a row to build a 4-2 lead. But Ferrer opened the seventh game by netting an inside-out forehand, and followed with a backhand unforced error. Ferrer rallied from 15-40 to deuce, but Nadal’s perfectly timed two-handed backhand crosscourt winner gave him another chance. He took it, rolling a forehand pass down the line for a winner after Ferrer had drawn him in with a drop shot.

At 3-4, Nadal drifted to 15-40, but he raised his game and held on after four deuces for 4-4. Ferrer had put considerable effort into altering the tempo of the match and trying to gain the upper hand, but he was spent. His two-handed backhand deserted him in the ninth game, and Nadal predictably pounced to get the break for 5-4. Order had been restored. Serving for the match at 5-4, Nadal held at 15 to close out a 6-2, 6-4 victory. In the process, he extended his clay court winning streak to 34 matches in a row. He also won his 31st career clay court tour level tournament to take over sole possession of third place on the Open Era men’s list for most clay court singles titles. Moreover, Nadal collected a 45th career tournament victory in his 60th final round appearance. Batting .750 in finals is a substantial achievement.

Nadal is riding high. He has this week to rest and practice before he sets his sights on winning Madrid and Rome. He will then have another week off before he goes full force after a sixth crown in seven years at Roland Garros. Nadal will surely win at least Madrid or Rome, and probably will secure both titles. As long as he does successfully defend one of those championships, he will head back to Paris as an overwhelming favorite. It is an arduous challenge to stop Nadal in a best of three set clay court match, but to halt him in a best of five set encounter at the French Open is one of the most daunting tasks in tennis. That is why it has only happened to him once over the last six years.

Nadal was awfully good in Monte Carlo and astonishing at times in Barcelona. His well disguised forehand down the line was on display much more in Barcelona, and Nadal looked sharper off that side altogether. His serve was improved in Barcelona, although he surprisingly won only 56% of his first serve points and 50% of his second serve points against Ferrer. Those are not typical Nadal numbers, and yet he won decisively. He has clearly not peaked on his favorite surface. He will move closer to the top of his game by Rome, but the feeling grows that his very best clay court tennis will not be released until Roland Garros. I have a feeling that all of his rivals—with the possible exception of Novak Djokovic—are not looking forward to crossing paths with the redoubtable Nadal any time soon. This unshakable individual is now entirely in his element, casting aside one adversary after another with consummate professionalism, building a platform to celebrate a banner year, reminding everyone that he means business every time he steps on a tennis court.

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