Nadal Still Reigns Supreme

Rafa is still the undisputed king of clay even though Novak Djokovic staged a fight back in the second set of the Monte Carlo final on Sunday. Rafa won a fifth straight title with a score of 6-3, 2-6, 6-1, confirming his top spot in the ATP rankings as well. The last time Rafa lost a set to anyone at Monte Carlo was in 2006 against the Swiss Master himself. The Djoker has not been himself of late so he wasn’t expected to give the world number one too many problems, but judging by the quality of his play against Rafa it is quite possible that he is back to the form that saw him win the Australian Open in 2008.

Where Andy Murray held his own for a set against Rafa, the Djoker went one further and won a set. Two thirds through the first set there was nothing to choose between the two. But in one of many long service games the Djoker got broken when serving at 3-3. He played a good game but then something seemed to be wrong with his back after which he played two less then perfect points to lose his serve. Just that little lapse from the Djoker was enough for Rafa to take the set 6-3. Until that point the standard of tennis was very high indeed and the Djoker was holding his own against probably the best clay court player of all time.

After Djokovic had back problems he took and injury time out and after that the back seemed to be fine. In the second set he continued his high quality play and it paid off as he broke Rafa twice to take the set 6-2. That was a big achievement in itself. What makes Nadal such a difficult opponent is that you have to play at an incredibly high level all the time, not just in patches. It was the same when Roger was dominating men’s tennis. Players could play one amazing set but it wouldn’t be enough because Roger would play like that all the time.

So when the third set started the Djoker’s level dropped ever so slightly and that was enough for Rafa to run away with the set 6-1. I just don’t see anyone beating Rafa at Roland Garros this year again. Roger doesn’t look the part and even if he gets his game back together by the time the tour swings around Paris I don’t see how he can beat Rafa. First of all he would need to make some major adjustments to his game which he has shown no intention of doing thus far, and even if he did it there is still no guarantee he would beat Rafa on clay.

Judging by what happened at Monte Carlo the Djoker must be the number one contender for now, and then Murray, Wawrinka, Verdasco and Davydenko when he is match fit. The Djoker can take a set as he has shown against Rafa but then it gets to hard to maintain that high level of play. It does look like we are in for another very predictable clay court season with Rafa winning most of the important titles, including the French Open. And who knows for how many years this may yet continue. For now there is no one on the horizon that looks like dethroning the Spanish Bull. If Roger couldn’t do it who would?!

Nadal’s game is such that if an opponent doesn’t play out of their minds for an entire match they won’t beat him. And there is no one out there that can play at such a high level for so long. Roger came the closest of them all. He could stay with Rafa pretty much throughout an entire match, but still Rafa had the edge. In the French Open matches that they played, except for the last one of course, Roger could also play one very good set. But then Rafa’s consistency would eventually win the day. His strokes just have such a small margin for error and he is physically out of this world.

The down side of that game is that he must really work for his wins because it is a defensive style for the most part. On clay that is perfect because the surface is easy on the physique and it is simply the most effective way to play on clay. But on hard courts Rafa has to work really hard against quality opposition. This year for instance we saw it in the Australian Open semi’s and finals where he played two marathon matches. When Roger was at the top he never played two matches in a row like that on a hard court, or any surface for that matter.

Roger’s game is pretty much effortless. He can get a lot of cheap points with his serve, he has a big forehand, he can volley well, he takes the ball early and he has that genius factor. All of these things make Roger an awesome sight to behold when he is at his best. There is just no words to describe how easy he can make the game look when he is at his best. I really hope we will see him play that tennis again and I think there is a good chance. The guy has won 13 slams, surely he will be back. I know I said in my previous post nothing is guaranteed but maybe I was being a little pessimistic.

Surely someone who has won 13 grand slam titles is not just gonna fade away like that. I think for Roger it’s just a question of sticking around. He is too good not to find some confidence again if he does that. And when he does, watch out! Remember what happened to Sampras when he won his last grand slam, people had already written him off but he won one or two matches at his last US Open and went on to dominate the way he did before, sweeping aside anyone that came in his way. I’d like to see Roger do the same, but it has to be said Sampras didn’t have a Murray or a Rafa standing in his way.

There wasn’t really anyone who ‘owned’ Sampras in that way as far as I can remember. Sure he had a few tough opponents but in the grand slams he still beat them. For now Roger hasn’t been beaten by Murray in a grand slam but if he plays like he does now and meets Murray in a slam I’m afraid he might have a lot of trouble. As for Rafa, he has beaten Roger now in al the grand slams except for the US Open. This is also the most difficult slam for Rafa to win because it’s the fastest conditions of all the grand slams.

It’s the one grand slam where Roger is still probably the favorite against Rafa and it is where I feel he needs to strike. But it is also the slam where Murray has his best chance. Murray may be even a bigger threat for Roger at the US Open. When Sampras won his last US Open he lost the previous two years to Hewitt and Safin in the final. The year he won it Agassi beat Hewitt in the semi’s, so he eliminated a potential problem opponent for Pete. Maybe something similar could happen at the US Open for Roger.

He would be hard pressed to beat both Rafa and Murray there, but if one of them could eliminate the other that could just be enough. We will have to see. Like I said Sampras didn’t have problem opponents the way Roger have so I do feel like Roger would need to make a change against these opponents anyway. I mean lets be honest, even if he plays the way he did when he was at his dominant best he could still struggle against these opponents because they have figured him out. So he would have to change something to get back on an even keel with them.

One of my readers said that Roger said in a press conference the reason he is trying to finish points early is because of his back problem and that he feels silly about doing so. If that is the case it adds a whole new dynamic to the situation of course, but I have no proof that he actually said that. I actually hope he said that because sometimes I am dumbfounded that an experienced player like Roger doesn’t make the tactical adjustments like he should.So if that reader is out there please send me the proof if you have it.

It would be nice to know there is something other then the mental problems that is plaguing Roger these days. At least if we know he is injured we know he has no other choice. I’m sorry I haven’t posted the last couple of days but I’ve had some problems with my internet. This post should give you something to wrap your tennis brains around for a while ;-)

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2 Comments

  1. Good post as always Ruan. Yeah, sorry I haven’t posted as often as before; I’ve been super busy.

    Before I really start talking about your post, I think I found that interview that you were looking for. It was in TMC in November 2008. He mentions in that interview that he was forced to play very aggressively and offensively, in order to keep the points short (due to his back). That was the only interview that Federer mentions his back problems in that connotation (though I could be wrong :-P ). Here’s the link: http://www.masters-cup.com/4/pdf/interviews/2008/federer6.pdf

    Anyways, I have to say I really enjoyed your post. You made some excellent points which I completely agree with.

    Though it is apparent that Nadal is still the best claycourt player on the tour by far, I am beginning to wonder if Nadal is becoming a little bit vulnerable. I realize I must sound completely ridiculous for even suggesting this, especially after Rafa just won his record fifth straight Monte Carlo title.

    But I noticed the first bit of vulnerability in Nadal in his match against Murray, particularly in the second set.

    Most would agree that Murray is far from a clay-court specialist. His results on the clay really quite reflect that :-P . In fact, this was the first time he had ever reached a semi-final in any clay-court event before.

    In this match, he made quite a few unforced forces and it appeared that his serve was not quite clicking the entire match. Yet, somehow, Murray fought back from a set and a break down and saved match points while receiving against the greatest clay courter ever in order to force a tiebreak in the second set.

    To be perfectly honest, I think it really comes down to patience and concentration when playing Nadal on this surface. When Murray walked out on court, he wasn’t in awe of Nadal, of his record on clay or his winning streak in Monte Carlo. He didn’t have that wary and resigned look that so many other opponents have when facing him (even Federer has had such a look on his face at some points). Murray firmly believes that he can win. When I say this, I truly mean it. In Federer’s era, there were many players who went out on court who said they believed in their chances against (I think mainly of someone like Blake, back in ’06 and the like), and yet had no particular game plan and tactics to play against Federer. They really didn’t believe in the chances of their win.

    In that match against Murray, it was evident that Murray had a plan against Nadal. Though he was unable to really execute it in the first set (as demonstrated by the score of 62), it became much more apparent in the second set. Even though his high unforced error count and rather poor serving cost him this match, it was a pleasure to see someone truly play with Nadal. Murray refused to be dazzled by Nadal’s dominance on this surface, and it really showed in the second set. So many other players would have given up after being down a set and a break (ie. Federer; though I hate to admit it. After Federer lost the first set to Nadal in the French Open last year, he could barely win a few more service games). Yet Murray kept coming at Nadal, and beating him from all areas of the court, even from the baseline (which is rather difficult to do against Nadal on clay).

    It was so refreshing to see Murray undaunted by Nadal and the clay. It was obvious to see that Murray firmly believed in his chances to win the match. Moreover, I believe that Murray is as mentally strong as Nadal is. As a result, when these two play, it is on equal ground, as Nadal has lost his biggest weapon: the mental edge he has over an opponent due to their own fear. It is no different to the mental superiority Federer had over everyone two years ago. When Nadal walks out on a clay court, nine times out of ten, he has already won that match from a mental standpoint alone.

    So, if there truly is some vulnerability within Nadal that can be exposed by his opponents, what are the chances of Roland Garros crowning a new champion this year? Really, next to none, but think about this. Both Djokovic and Murray have shown this past weekend that they not only have the game to beat Nadal, but also the patience and now, particularly Murray, the confidence and faith that they can beat him. I think it is only a matter of time before they beat him.

    This is what I feel Federer is truly lacking in his game right now; patience and confidence. I read a rather interesting interview with Jose Higueras a couple of days ago, where, surprise surprise, he said that he did not want to end his coaching contract with Federer but wanted to continue on working with him. It was Federer who refused. But what I truly liked in this article was Higueras’s blunt opinion on the state of Federer’s game. Though he stated that Federer can feel the game of tennis like no other player can (which I completely agree with :-) ), he said that Federer has to learn to adapt to changing conditions. Essentially, he stated that Federer must change his game or he will continue to lose. This is truly where I feel Federer’s situation is at. I just hope he isn’t too stubborn to fix this. What makes Nadal such a great player is the fact that he is continually fine-tuning and fixing his game; he is unafraid of change. Let’s hope Federer can take a page out of Nadal’s book.

    Rome is the next tournament for Federer, and a chance to gain some much needed ranking points (have you seen? he’s about to lose the number 2 ranking to the djoker of all people). This tournament will really allow us Federer fanatics a chance to gauge where Federer’s game is at, and his chances at Roland Garros and beyond this year.

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  2. Hi Jennifer

    I agree that Murray and Djoker did well against Rafa in Monte Carlo but Rafa was not at his best. He played pretty much like he did in Miami. But the fact that it was clay helped him of course. I read that uncle Toni said he wasnt satisfied at all with Rafa’s performence and im not surprised. So you have to take into account that Rafa wasnt playing at 100%, while Djoker and Murray was and he still beat them pretty comfortably.

    Its a scary thought but the guy is just untouchable on clay think. Nevertheless i agree it was good to see him being pushed at least and losing a set to Djoker. I think the Djoker and Murray will learn from this and make the necessary adjustments. I think Murray was a bit lucky to make the semis after Davydenko was clearly lacking match practice. But i think the only guy that can give Rafa anything close to a contest on clay now is the Djoker.

    If he works really hard at his fitness he might even be able to do better then that. But like i said in the post Rafa, like Roger was, is just in another league on clay then the others. So i dont hold out much hope for them not this year anyway. Hopefully in years to come someone like the Djoker can give him a better challenge on clay.

    I really like his talent, i mean he has awesome ground strokes but he can also come in to finish the point. What i have noticed about Rafa though is that when he is not playing well his return of the first serve falls short, and that is where the Djoker must try to end the point. He did this pretty well in MC. Another thing is Rafa’s second serve which was really bad. Here the Djoker must also try to end the point or at least get into a dominant position.

    Thank you for the link btw, i might do a post about Rogers injury. But whether it is his injury or not that caused it i think Roger is struggling. I dont think he will make the final at RG again. I just hope his GS record stays in tactand that he makes at least semis. Hugueras is right, he needs to make changes or he will keep losing. I find all of this quite interesting.

    I wonder how long Roger will keep having breakdowns untill he decides to change. Im looking forward to see how he will do at Rome now after having had some time to digest things after Miami and the wedding and everything.

    Talk soon :D

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