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Solving The Rafa Riddle

DEUCE

Rafael Nadal© Getty ImagesRafael Nadal has dominated Roland Garros like few others.

Rafael Nadal has suffered just five clay-court losses in five years. As the four-time defending champion returns to Roland Garros, are there lessons to be learned from those defeats? Or is the Spaniard a lock to again go all the way in Paris?

Rafael Nadal is a man accustomed to getting what he wants or, more to the point, taking what he earns. There is nothing he wants more than a record-breaking fifth consecutive title at Roland Garros, where he is one of the hottest favourites in Grand Slam history. As was the case with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer during their dominant runs at Wimbledon, it’s difficult to build a cogent argument detailing how Nadal can be beaten in Paris. But, as history shows, the Sampras and Federer runs did eventually end.

Does anyone have the mental and physical strength required to beat Nadal at Roland Garros this year? Tattooed in players’ consciousness is Nadal’s jaw-dropping clay-court run since 2005: 150 wins and five losses, coming into Paris. Collectively, the victories tell an amazing tale with no shortage of stunning records and statistics. But when debating whether Nadal will be beaten in Paris this year, here is all you need to know: Nadal boasts a perfect 45-0 record in best-of-five-set matches on clay, has only twice been pushed to a fifth set and never at Roland Garros, where he comes into the 2009 event with an unbeaten 28-0 record.

There’s not much comfort in those numbers for players hoping to upset the Spaniard this year. But what about the five losses in five years: Can any lessons be gleaned from Nadal’s defeats? In trying to identify a game plan to beat the Spaniard, it could be argued that other factors had as much, or more, to do with the five losses than did the play or tactics of the winner.

It may sound harsh to deny Roger Federer full credit for his highly-satisfying win over Nadal in the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 Madrid final earlier this month, but as well as the Swiss played, Nadal clearly was not at his best physically after toiling for more than four hours the day before to beat Novak Djokovic in a brutal semi-final. It certainly wasn’t the same Nadal as the one who handed Federer a 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 loss in the 2008 Roland Garros final. Having said that, Federer played very smart, using the elevation in Madrid to his advantage, attacking relentlessly, keeping points short and serving big. “Playing on clay at a different altitude… gives you opportunities to play aggressive,” said Federer, adding that “it’s not so easy to hit passing shots because at times on other surfaces when it´s so slow it´s almost impossible to come to the net [against Nadal].

“We both had trouble controlling the ball, because the points were kept shorter it was better for my game and that’s why I won today. I saw some of those things against Djokovic, that he was struggling in the beginning to control his serve and probably Djokovic should have finished him off in two.”

Perhaps it was Djokovic, who also took a set from Nadal just weeks earlier in Monte-Carlo, who revealed a game plan that could work against the Spaniard, even in Paris, without the benefit of altitude. It worked well enough to earn Djokovic three match points in Madrid before Nadal won 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(9).

Taking an opposing view to Andy Murray, who caused Nadal some discomfort in Monte-Carlo with high, bouncy topspin, Djokovic instead worked his way into a winning position by hitting flat and deep, making it harder for the left-hander to run around his backhand. Hitting low and deep also denied Nadal the time and bounce to rip his most vicious topspin forehands. Djokovic also flouted conventional wisdom by hitting wide to the Nadal forehand – a wing most players avoid like the plague. But what’s the point of consistently hitting to Nadal’s backhand? If the rally goes long enough eventually he’ll find a ball to run around and open up the court like a can of peaches.

Willing to hit to the forehand court, Djokovic reduced Nadal’s ability to run around his backhand and unleash his favourite forehand. And well-executed blows wide to the forehand that took Nadal out of court left the backhand court exposed, allowing the Serb to hit clean winners. Taking a different approach to Federer, Djokovic was also willing to hang with Nadal in extended baseline rallies. From the club player to the ATP World Tour pro, when an underdog goes up against a more fancied opponent there is a tendency to play too aggressively in the belief that the only way to win is to take chances on every point. Despite never having beaten Nadal on clay, Djokovic was often willing to dig in from the baseline and not give away free points. Indeed, Nadal threw in 50 unforced errors in the match, including 11 unforced forehand errors in the first set. But don’t expect to see those numbers again anytime soon.

“I’m very disappointed that I can play this well and still not win a match,” Djokovic said. “I think that I’ve played my best tennis on this surface.” Despite pushing Nadal that close, Djokovic was unable to identify what he could have done differently on the match points he held. “If I knew I would probably win,” he quipped in exasperation.

Former Roland Garros champion Gaston Gaudio and Russian Igor Andreev, two of the four players to have recorded clay-court wins over Nadal in the past five years, tell DEUCE that they are doubtful that anyone can beat Nadal at Roland Garros this year.

“On clay Rafa is almost unbeatable,” says Gaudio, who is the only player to have beaten Nadal three times on clay, but not since 2005. “He is in great shape physically. It is hard to predict who could beat him, but I don’t think there is anyone that could do that at the moment. He is pretty much invincible on clay. I don’t really know [how you go about beating him]. He has no weaknesses. You have to attack and hope not to make many mistakes. I beat him when he was not at the top.”
 
Andreev, who beat Nadal 7-5, 6-2 in Valencia in 2005, says: “There are not many things to explore when you play against him… I’m really not sure what’s the perfect game plan. You have to play aggressive and not make many mistakes. He fights for every point and makes few mistakes, so you really have to take your chances. Maybe if he is having a bad day some of the top players could give him trouble. Djokovic played a close match with him in Monte-Carlo [and Madrid]. But playing best of five sets is a different story.”

Indeed it is. A few players have shown the ability to truly compete with Nadal on clay in short bursts – perhaps for five or six games or even for long enough to eke out a set like Djokovic did in Monte-Carlo – but almost always Nadal pulls away when that intensity inevitably begins to wane. Djokovic’s heroic performance in the epic Madrid semi-final is a glaring exception and one that may give his fellow players hope. But how many players honestly believe they can win three sets against Nadal at Roland Garros, where the clay king has never been taken to a fifth set?

As for taking advantage of chances when they arise, that’s what Federer did exceedingly well in the Madrid final. The Swiss, who saved all four break points against him, converted both break point opportunities he earned on Nadal’s serve. Contrast that with his break point conversion in three consecutive Roland Garros finals with Nadal: 1 of 4 in 2008, 1 of 17 in 2007 and 3 of 10 in 2006 for a combined mark of five service breaks from 31 break point chances.

While there are lessons to be drawn from Madrid, not many secrets were revealed in Nadal’s second most recent loss on clay – to former Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero in the first round of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 tournament in Rome last year. After winning Monte-Carlo and Barcelona in consecutive weeks leading into Rome, Nadal was hobbled by blisters on his feet and lost 7-5, 6-1. For context, Nadal won his next five tournaments after Rome (including the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double), for a streak of seven titles from eight tournaments. Perhaps the only take-away from Rome was a lesson about Nadal’s character. Despite being intensely proud of his clay-court record, Nadal refused to retire in the second set against Ferrero.

Nadal’s third most recent clay-court defeat was his loss to Federer in the 2007 Hamburg final, which snapped the Spaniard’s 81-match match winning streak on the surface. After winning Monte-Carlo, Barcelona and Rome in the lead-up, and having battled Lleyton Hewitt for 2 ½ hours the day before in the semi-finals, Nadal ran out of gas in the final. He won the first set 6-2 but then managed just two more games for the match as Federer ran away a 2-6, 6-2, 6-0 winner.

Before that, you have to look back to Valencia in 2005, when Nadal was just 18, to find another loss on clay (to Andreev). His only other loss on clay during the past five years was a bizarre 0-6, 6-0, 6-1 loss to Gaudio in the quarter-finals of Buenos Aires in Nadal’s first clay tournament of the year. He responded by winning back-to-back titles in Costa do Sauipe and Acapulco in the following weeks and by thrashing Gaudio 6-3, 6-0 when they next met on clay in Monte-Carlo.

Has much been learned by Nadal’s five clay losses since 2005? The loss to Federer in Madrid – accompanied by the near-loss to Djokovic one day earlier – appears to have returned the most intelligence. But elevation won’t be a factor in Paris.

Federer, who is in a race with Nadal to become just the sixth man in history to win all four Grand Slam titles, has not given up hope of claiming the elusive Roland Garros crown in his 11th attempt, but he knows not to overplay the significance of his Madrid victory. “I don’t think that’s he is going to be damaged by this… I’m sure he will be rock solid in Paris again. [But] I think that we have seen this week, that if you play Rafa the right way there are chances.”

Roger may be proved correct. But, as Mike Tyson once said of his opponents, “Everyone’s got a plan till they get hit.”

 
 
 

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