Three days and four matches with Rafa

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 The conversation about Rafael Nadal and his prowess on clay is well known, from the lengthy winning streaks and stream of titles to the dominating topspin forehand and determined court coverage.  Every tournament victory pushes his record further into the stratosphere and even his rare defeats, such as the recent loss to world no.1 Djokovic in Monte Carlo, only seem to bring the magnitude of previous achievements into sharper focus. While the deluge of statistics convey effectively that Nadal is a colossus of the clay court, it can be useful to look behind these at some of the actual passages of play that illustrate his many and varied strengths.

Due to rain delays while covering the Barcelona Open, I ended up watching Nadal play four matches in three days from close proximity. In each match there were moments that, in my view, illustrated some of the things that make him a special player and explain how he retained the Torneo Godó without dropping set.

Versatility and clutch play

In the fourth round Nadal faced Benoit Paire, a Frenchman with a penchant for reckless attacking play. In front of an initially sparse crowd on the Pista Central, Paire came out swinging for the lines and more often than not finding them. Nadal was broken in the opening game and Paire then held serve twice for a 3-1 lead. Paire was still striking the ball decisively in the fifth game but double-faulted for 0-30. Despite Paire hitting an ace on the next point, Nadal ‘s versatility allowed him to use his slice backhand in attacking fashion to good effect for the remainder of the game, putting Paire’s timing off with the change of pace and securing the break back.

The remainder of the set was closely contested, notable for featuring so many unsuccessful drop shots from the Frenchman that it bordered on the surreal. With the ensuing tiebreak on serve at 3-2 Nadal raised his level of play at the crucial moment, winning the next five points to win the set in 53 minutes. Anyone who has followed Nadal’s career can attest to countless similar scenarios; simply put he usually plays his best when it matters the most.

Getting off court quick

Having dispatched Paire in straight sets, Nadal returned to action later that day in a quarter final match with compatriot Albert Ramos. With respect to his good clay court skills Ramos lacks the weapons to pose a real threat to Nadal and, in the unusual position of playing twice in one day, it was important for Nadal to win the match in as short a time as possible.  The Mallorcan was able to adjust to much more attacking style of play than employed in his morning match and got off the court in just 66 minutes after a 6-3 6-0 win.

A show of strength

Nadal’s opponent in the semi finals was 22 year old Milos Raonic. The Canadian hot shot had played very impressively to hold off local favourite Tommy Robredo in a tough quarter final, having already defeated Ernests Gulbis a few hours earlier. With a huge serve and an attacking game, Raonic has been heralded as a possible threat to the existing ATP hegemony. It was the pair’s first meeting in eighteen months and Nadal did everything he could to disillusion the younger challenger of his prospects.

Excellent volleying had been a feature of Raonic’s play in previous matches. During the warm-up Raonic hit an excellent series of volleys to Nadal’s increasingly hard struck ground strokes until eventually Canadian was forced into a mishit by a truly fizzing forehand. A rueful grin on Raonic’s face indicated the message had been received and he perhaps sent Nadal a message of his own by pounding several consecutive practice serves into the canvas back court. The first set was a fascinating heavyweight contest , a tight affair that Nadal took with two breaks of serve to Raonic’s one while only winning three more points. Nadal returned serve from roughly three metres behind the baseline – an adjustment that was effective in limiting Raonic to six aces during the match. The conditions were overcast and cold. Nadal adjusted well to this by interspersing his hitting with skidding underpowered shots that kept low on the damp surface and caused the 6’5” Raonic problems.

In the second set Nadal was able to effectively smother his opponent, containing Raonic’s ground strokes with great movement around the court and then counter striking.  The Spaniard’s ability to hit improvised shots on the move led to some trademark running forehand winners that had the crowd on their feet in support. Having broken his opponent twice for a 3-0 lead, Nadal was not content to coast the match out. In fact he raised his level, begrudging Raonic each and every point, and in doing so won the set 6-0. Nadal’s ultra competitiveness in achieving this was possibly motivated by a desire to lower Raonic’s confidence in future confrontations.

Play in the rain

In the championship match, Nadal met fellow Spaniard Nicolas Almagro, the fourth seed and world number 12. The match began during a rare dry spell on another predominantly rainy day in Barcelona, with Nadal slow to start once again and broken in his opening two service games by some precision attacking play by Almagro. The wet court was bouncing low and even with his heavy topspin forehand Nadal could not kick the ball up high enough to regularly trouble the Almagro one-handed backhand.

 A steady drizzle had built up and with Almagro 3-0 up it escalated into fairly heavy rain, making the balls heavier and more difficult for the players to hit winners. Almagro allowed the conditions to affect his attitude, appealing to the umpire to halt proceeding – a request that was never likely to be granted given the poor forecast for the remainder of the day. Nadal in contrast accepted the conditions and did not allow them to distract his focus from the match. Nadal recovered his position to 4-4 and then saved multiple break points to hold and force Almagro to serve to stay in the set. The momentum shift was palpable and it was no surprise that Nadal duly broke to take the set.  Once again Nadal seized the opportunity with strong play at a critical moment, deflating his opponent in the process.

One very small moment in the second set stood out in my mind. At 4-2 up and Nadal was well in control, Almagro was driven back in a rally and launched a desperate lob. Nadal was a picture of concentration, eyes fixed on the ball while adjusting his position constantly underneath it, ultimately allowing the ball to bounce and making several more tiny adjustments so he was in the perfect position to dispatch a smash. It was not on a key point but was a small showcase of Nadal’s will to win.

As Nadal lifted the huge trophy a few minutes later to the cheers of even the Almagro diehards, one final thing was apparent. A player like Nadal, who I observed during the tournament showing unflagging respect to the fellow players and match officials while displaying seemingly limitless patience with fans and journalists, gets to play in an environment where relatively few begrudge his success. At Spanish tournaments like Barcelona this effect is much more pronounced but Rafa, just by being himself, benefits from this on courts much further from his home than the Pista Central.

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