Make us your homepage


Steve Flink: Nadal Does It Again

6/27/2011 6:00:00 PM

WIMBLEDON-- This tournament was crying out for a riveting skirmish among the men, a gripping showdown between two top of the line competitors, a battle that would draw us in from the start and keep us passionately involved right up until the end. We needed a blockbuster of a match to conclude the round of 16 for the men on the highest possible note, and we got just that from the indefatigable Rafael Nadal of Spain and the towering Juan Martin Del Potro, his worthy adversary from Argentina. They gave us shot making and athleticism that was almost unimaginable at times. They both overcame injuries, got back off the canvas, went gallantly back to work, and kept raising the stakes across the late afternoon and on well into the evening. In the end, Nadal eclipsed Del Potro 7-6 (6),3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4 in three hours and 52 minutes in a match concluding at 9:06 in the evening, but the score does not begin to do justice to the way both men competed, to the breathtaking rallies they produced, to the way they protected their serves.

Feel sorrow for Del Potro, who played his heart out, and demonstrated that those who claim he can’t perform on the grass with the overwhelming force and aggression he does on other surfaces simply don’t know what they are talking about. Over the course of those four magnificent sets, Del Potro lost his serve only once, and yet he still bowed. He made only 21 unforced errors (five more than the highly charged and disciplined Spaniard), but it wasn’t enough for the big man to get the job done. He varied his tactics, served-and-volleyed selectively and remarkably well, stayed back and released his inimitable brand of devastatingly potent and accurate ground strokes, and never allowed Nadal to settle into a sustained comfort zone. Del Potro was astonishingly close to the level he reached in cutting down Nadal and Roger Federer for the 2009 U.S. Open crown. He was admirable in every facet of his game, flexible in his thinking, sound in his execution, but he still lost an extraordinary tennis match.

He lost for one simple yet unmistakable reason: Rafael Nadal remains the best big point player in the game of tennis, the man most able to rise to the deepest and toughest challenges and meet them head on, the champion who stands alone on his own island as the greatest competitor I have seen in 46 years of watching world class tennis. Nadal is unflinching in the tight corners of his most important contests, demanding no less than the best from himself, imposing his will in an almost tangible way during the moments that matter the most. He did it again in this contest, and seldom has he been pushed harder by anyone other than Federer or Novak Djokovic. The pressure was almost entirely on Nadal, who prides himself on his unswerving consistency at the majors, who refuses—except on rare occasions—to stop believing in himself and his chances, no matter how hard he is being pushed, regardless of the circumstances.

Nadal constantly seemed on the verge of securing the opening set, but Del Potro kept denying the Spaniard opportunities. At 2-3, Del Potro wiped away a break point against him with an ace out wide in the Ad court. At 4-5, the Argentine saved two set points on his serve with unstoppable serves wide to the forehand in the Ad court. And then at 5-6, Del Potro saved another set point, going down the T at 30-40 to set up a big forehand approach, forcing Nadal into a passing shot error. On the two players went to a tie-break, but not before Nadal called for the trainer to get help with his left foot, which he had bandaged during a medical time-out. Del Potro was clearly aggravated by the delay, but rules are rules, and Nadal had not broken any. The tie-break was bizarre in many ways, as Del Potro surged to 3-0 with a mini-break, only to be caught off guard as a resilient Nadal collected four points in a row.

Nadal served at 4-3, but lost two points in a row on his serve as Del Potro provoked a passing shot error from the Spaniard, and then drove a two-hander crosscourt to rush the Spaniard into a down the line forehand mistake. Now Del Potro—leading 5-4—had a chance to serve the set out, but Nadal rallied to 5-5. Nevertheless, Del Potro advanced to 6-5 with a set point in his favor. Nadal was serving that 12th point, however, and he played it with typical grit and intelligence. Nadal released a body serve into the forehand side of Del Potro, who understandably erred on the return. It was 6-6. Nadal followed with a backhand down the line winner that landed on the baseline, and that scintillating shot gave him his fourth set point. Here, Del Potro had his most frail moment of the day, double faulting flagrantly long, enabling Nadal to seal the set at last.

But Nadal surely sensed quickly that Del Potro—despite his set ending double fault—was not surrendering tamely, not by any means. He took his game to another level, kept Nadal largely at bay with his unpredictable game plan on serve, found his range off the ground. With Nadal serving at 3-4 in the second set, Del Potro made his move. Nadal was down 15-30, and his first serve set up an opening for an inside out forehand winner. But Nadal recognized that Del Potro had slipped hitting a two-handed backhand, and he uncharacteristically missed his trademark inside-out forehand. Del Potro pounced, running around his backhand to make a forehand inside-in approach. Nadal missed a backhand passing shot, and Del Potro was in business. Now ahead 5-3, he served out the set commandingly, holding at love to make it one set all.

Both players remained at a high level in the third set, and then Del Potro had an injury scare of his own. With Nadal serving at 2-2, 30-15, Del Potro slipped and fell badly chasing a Nadal crosscourt forehand. He left the court for an injury timeout to treat his hip, but it was soon apparent upon the resumption of the contest that the Argentine was moving well and was largely uninhibited. Both men held easily all through that set, and on they moved to a pivotal tie-break. Nadal and Del Potro fully understood the magnitude of that moment. The tie-break was almost inevitably going to decide the outcome of the match. Nadal took a swift 2-0 lead before Del Potro drew level at 2-2.

The fifth point of that sequence was crucial. Nadal backed up his second serve with a flurry of aggressive forehands, concluding that exchange with one of his countless inside-out winners off his stronger side. He was ahead again at 3-2, and never looked back. Nadal advanced to 4-2 when Del Potro drove a forehand approach long off a short, low return. Serving at 4-3, he sliced his first delivery wide to set up an inside-out forehand. The Spaniard followed that shot in and easily anticipated Del Potro’s forehand down the line passing shot, angling a volley into an open court. Del Potro followed with an unforced error off the forehand to make it 6-3 for Nadal, and two points later Nadal laced a running forehand down the line to provoke a netted forehand from his helpless opponent. Nadal had the tie-break 7-4, and with it a two sets to one lead.

The fourth set was essentially settled in the fifth game. Serving at 2-2, Del Potro was down 30-40. The Argentine drove a two-hander crosscourt, and Nadal read it perfectly, sending his forehand up the line for a clean winner, achieving his only service break of the match at the best possible time. Nonetheless, Nadal trailed 0-30 in the following game, but he produced an ace out wide in the deuce court and collected three more points in a row for a critical hold. Nadal held at 15 for 5-3, and played a terrific game when he served for the match in the tenth game, holding at love without missing a first serve. Nadal got the victory in four hard fought sets, and it took him into the quarterfinals.

In his press conference an hour later, Nadal sounded deeply concerned about his injury. He was not certain how it initially occurred, but he planned to get an MRI to find out just how serious it is. Running to hit forehands was painful the rest of the way, although the tape from the trainer helped. As he said, “I can not push with the foot to defend my forehand. To go against the backhand was not a problem. I can run fast there. I can run fast in front of me. The biggest problem is when I had to defend my forehand.”

The hope here is that Nadal’s injury is not serious, that it does not force him out of a tournament he sorely wants to win. He has not lost at Wimbledon since 2007, when Federer toppled him in a five set final. He took the title in an epic five setter against Federer the following year, missed the event the next year with a knee injury, then returned a year ago to record a second tournament triumph on the Centre Court.  The view here is that this win against Del Potro will carry Nadal on toward a third championship run at the All England Club, but only if he is not preoccupied and hindered by his burdensome foot.

Nadal is scheduled to meet Mardy Fish on Wednesday in the quarterfinals. Fish, of course, is the last American standing at this year’s Wimbledon, and he knocked out 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych convincingly in straight sets. And yet, the 29-year-old American has never beaten Nadal. But Fish is playing the finest tennis of his career, and Nadal won’t win without being close to the peak of his game. The other men’s quarterfinals put Andy Murray against Feliciano Lopez, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga against Federer, and Djokovic against the promising Bernard Tomic. If Nadal is healthy and raring to go, there is an excellent chance that the four best players in tennis will assemble on Friday for the semifinals, with Nadal taking on Murray and Federer opposing Djokovic.

Meanwhile, we can celebrate a terrific tennis match played by Nadal and Del Potro. Del Potro is surely going to be at his absolute peak for the U.S. Open, and he can be proud of his professionalism and creativity in his encounter with Nadal on the grass. As for Nadal, no matter what happens to him from here on in at Wimbledon, he can be gratified that he won an exhilarating battle from Del Potro in the finest match they have ever contested against each other. In the end, Nadal won this match much more than Del Potro lost it, and that is a superb testament to both competitors.

Steve Flink Archive | Email Steve