The draw’s out, the sun’s out, and the players are out. And the question that all the men in the draw have to face is: Who can beat Rafa?
Now more than 4,000 points clear in the rankings, and with the bit between his teeth, it’s going to be a formidable task. Even the conditions suit him.
Bearing in mind the ease with which he sailed through Indian Wells—give or take David Nalbandian—in an environment not ideally tailored to his game, Miami should be a breeze.
Warm, humid, sea-level, and breezy, the balls will be less lively through the air but heavier off the court surface. But it is not the conditions that will buoy him up through this tournament, it is the confidence he now has by the bucket load.
He’s just dismissed Andy Murray in cursory form. He withstood five match points against Nalbandian. And most other players in the draw have no idea how to puncture his game. He has them in a vice-like grip.
But the beauty of tennis is that you never know who will hit a hot streak, who will fall injured by the wayside, or whose nerve will buckle when the rain falls. It is gladiatorial, and it is nerve-jangling. Any one of a number of men could take this event by the throat, so let’s take a look at the prime contenders.
He’s going through the mill at the hands of Nadal and Murray—and even the media. Is he past his prime? Has he lost his nerve? Will impending fatherhood weaken his resolve?
Let’s put these questions into some sort of context. He has the finest skills out there but had been out of the game with back problems for six weeks when Indian Wells began, and was match-rusty. He even admitted that his back was not yet 100 percent. He duly lost in the semis to Murray.
On top of that, he came to Indian Wells fresh from the Cahill debacle (and had his nose rubbed in it by Cahill sitting in Fernando Verdasco’s corner at their quarter-final).
Federer certainly needs an objective eye, a calm presence, and an intelligent pair of eyes in his team. Without them, he may still not get on top of Nadal this time around—though he can rightly expect to meet him in the final.
We should anticipate a couple of very attractive matches on the way, though, first against Tommy Robredo, later against Gael Monfils or Andy Roddick. A final with Nadal will be a treat for everyone. Just don’t get hammered into that backhand corner, Roger!
Djokovic has been less than convincing this season. Though he won at Dubai, he did not have Murray, Nadal, and Federer to contend with there. Nor did he cover himself with glory in Melbourne, and he buckled like a house of cards at Indian Wells. Should he make the semis in Miami, he will struggle to get the better of Federer, and has neither the endurance nor the temperament to beat Nadal.
Andy Murray has a tough draw by any measure. For the pleasure of meeting Nadal again in the semi, he could face Richard Gasquet or Nalbandian, then Verdasco or Fernando Gonzalez.
He’s tough enough not to carry a psychological burden from his finals loss in Indian Wells. He has a good record against Nadal, and he’s confident. He has the skill to learn from Nalbandian and swing the ball wide on both sides, keep it low, break the rhythm. Murray has the fitness and the touch, and has a genuine chance against Nadal. With luck, we can have the thrill of another Master’s Cup-style matchup between Murray and Federer in the final.
Roddick was like a rabbit caught in the headlights against Nadal in Indian Wells. He may be fit, rejuvenated, and passionate, but he simply does not have the variety of game to beat the Spaniard. As many others have done before, he ended up being dictated to by huge looping serves and drives. He attempted to reply in kind and that was fatal.
Juan Martin del Potro
Juan Martin del Potro, like Roddick, has come to the Master’s tournaments with a title under his belt, and the similarity continues. He, too, fell into the trap of trying to outplay Nadal at his own game.
Del Potro is a player who has broken into the upper rankings almost by accident, leaving more talented players in his wake. It’s possible that he will lose out to David Ferrer or Marin Cilic before he even meets Nadal.
If Simon gets past Tsonga, he could do serious damage to Djokovic. He’s then got Federer, who he beat at the end of 2008. But Simon’s biggest weapons are endurance and speed, and Nadal simply outdoes almost everyone in those departments.
Where Simon might just push Nadal is with his low penetrating drives that give little height to those offensive top-spins. If he got through Federer again, and he’s feeling confident and fresh, Simon could push Nadal all the way to the winning post.
Now, Verdasco is a real possibility. Like Murray, he has the tough quarter, but he’s a tough cookie. Newly fit, newly confident, he made huge inroads into Nadal at the Australian Open. After an injury break, he then came back strong at Indian Wells, losing in a closely fought match against Federer.
He has the mental and the physical strength to stand toe-to-toe with Nadal. He’s a lefty, so he can keep Nadal’s ground strokes under better control than many others. He’s got a big serve, and he can handle the high bounce.
However, the real thriller could be the match before the semi-final against Murray. There could be fireworks—a couple of determined, fiery personalities with their eye on a big title. Whoever wins this one might have the measure of Nadal.
Flair, energy, fun, and inconsistency. He was beaten by Nadal at Rotterdam but got the better of him in Doha. He has charisma, height, and speed, but is he able to string together victories against Roddick, Federer, and Djokovic and win the right to another chance at Nadal? Unlikely. But even if he does, Monfils will be dominated by the weight and height of ball after ball in the heavy Miami conditions. Nadal wins again.
What about the Best of the Rest?
Nadal has tight matches against Tsonga but temperament will win out between these two, and Nadal’s is more resilient.
Gonzalez is on a strong upward curve at the moment, is aggressive, and has the loopy baseline game that should thrive in Miami. But he would have to get through Verdasco and Murray first, and that is probably too big an ask.
And, as always, Nalbandian on his day can beat all-comers. He’s done it to both Federer and Nadal. He nearly got Nadal in Indian Wells with that low, swinging, switching play. His are the tactics for others to emulate. He in turn needs to emulate the stamina and fitness of those ranked above him. If he gets the better of Murray and Verdasco, he will probably be worn out before he reaches Nadal.
Then there are Stepanek, Robredo, Ferrer, and Cilic, all of whom have won trophies this year and can always worry opponents. The matchup of the latter pair could produce a sleeper to upset Nadal, but you wouldn’t bet your hat on it.
The bottom line is, unless Nadal gets injured or sick, there are very few capable of making any impression. Getting drawn into the “Rafa game” is like punching a wall. An opponent will crumble before the bricks and mortar do.
Instead, it is necessary to pick away at the cement, force through the exposed weak point, and take him apart, brick by brick. But the concentration required to keep the screw turned from beginning to end is exhausting: Murray lost it in Indian Wells, Federer lost it in Melbourne.
The competition can bring all the technical skills, tactics, and speed in the world to the court. But if their focus and concentration wander for just a moment, that Nadal vice will tighten around them in an instant.