Rafael Nadal’s 7-6, 6-2 win over Ryan Harrison at Indian Wells may have been more than a successful return to hard courts. It’s a window into his ambitions to return to full strength on the ATP tour and recapture his No. 1 ranking.
Immediately after Nadal finished off Harrison, ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe initiated the telecast postmatch analysis by saying Nadal’s strong second-set finish was because of his talent. By the time, Nadal had shed his wet aqua shirt and zipped up his jacket, it was clear that the most important part of his talent had just been displayed.
Talent is Not Enough
Special champions are greater than their arsenal of skills. For Nadal, his Grand Slam success cannot simply be explained by gyrating topspin or clay-court skating. Nadal stated in his autobiography, Rafa (written with John Carlin), page 234, that greatness must come through dedication:
Talent alone won’t get you through. That’s just the first building block, on top of which you must pile relentlessly repetitive work in the gym, work on the courts, work studying videos of yourself and your opponents in action, always striving to get fitter, better, cleverer.
This was a more trimmed-down Nadal on Saturday night, urging on his body and gimpy knees after nearly a decade of professional grinding. He looked a little less confident with his movement than he did at clay-court Acapulco just a week ago
Many tennis fans are surprised Nadal even showed up at Indian Wells, theorizing that the Spaniard would be better off sticking to his beloved red clay and ensuring his own optimum health as he works his way back to top form.
But he is seeking to get fitter, better and cleverer. He did not try to slide into any shots on the dark blue hard courts, but his scrambling footwork controlled the match by hitting more winners, 25-14, than Harrison. Most importantly, he showed a physical and mental commitment to be at Indian Wells. He was not there for an early-exit appearance and paycheck.
There were greater elements of talent than his banana-curve forehand and fierce belief. He had to find ways to impose his greatest strengths when the points were most important, even in a match against 20-year-old Harrison. The important thing was more match time to sharpen his game.
Talent is Belief to Win Big Points
Nadal seemed to be cruising in the first set until a brutal seventh game that included three lazy forehand errors and a double fault. There are times he gets tight and overtops easy forehands into the net when he is trying to maintain control on a faster court.
Hard courts have usually left Nadal more ambivalent about when to stay patient and when to attack. On the one hand, his topspin is still adequate on Indian Well’s slower courts, but his favored tendencies can overlook opportunities to flatten the ball and risk a high-percentage chance for a winner.
Nadal is prone to stick with his patterns, so he did not pull the string on some up-the-line forehands from his ad court when there was enough real estate between Harrison and his deuce sideline to put up another Indian Wells hotel.
He prefers to hit the safer topspin and keep the ball in play. The opponent must deal with a heavier ball, as if it has been soaked in dew. Some of Nadal’s topspin buried its way into Harrison’s racket with biting sidespin, producing the other’s more flaccid replies.
Nadal has always felt the difference between good and great is a handful of big points. He stated as much on page 83 of his autobiography:
In the end, you have to understand that the difference in ability between the top players is marginal, practically nothing, and that the matches between us are decided in a handful of points.
In the 11th game, Nadal was reeling a bit, but saved a break point. He pumped his fist and then did it again two points later for the hold that put him back on course. His eyebrows raised, and his face was somber business. Clearly, this mattered more than the wait-and-be-patient approach he has been uttering to the press. The snarl was there.
Talent is Presence
Nadal has a fair history of wearing neon or pastel-colored attire. In this match, his bright aqua shirt glittered like coral in a tide pool. Though Nike has often been calculated with its garish designs, the most prominent way Nadal stood out was with his presence.
To an uninformed tennis watcher, it would be easy to recognize his championship aura. Maybe this is more shaped by our knowledge of his past dominance, but even in 2005, it was clear he was different and that he would be a big winner.
The biggest difference between Nadal and Harrison, outside of their histories and technical styles was competitive hubris. Nadal critics and detractors call it arrogance, but his supporters point to this as mental strength and fight. Regardless, when Nadal is at his best, his presence is intimidating, even at changeovers, staring at the court with a towel draped over his lap while tapping his knee.
This Nadal was present, and it bodes well for the next few months. He was rusty with forehand gaffes and unsure footing, but he is recovering more of his best timing and form.
He is rediscovering more consistency, as evidenced by a sharper, harder backhand that explored a few angles from months long past. He is scampering better, and if his knee still bothers him, it’s not prohibiting him from stepping harder and quicker.
Right now, Nadal is ahead of schedule. He has not yet aimed his barrels at Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray, but a quarterfinal showdown with Federer looms. He looks like he wants to own the ATP again and must sooner or later defeat the other members of the Fab Four.
McEnroe was right: Nadal’s talent is there. Look beyond the physical reports of Nadal’s knee and observe his growing belief and championship mettle. Greatness is contrived of unique intangibles, and once obtained, refuses to lie dormant.
Will Nadal build back his championship form and reclaim his No. 1 ranking? It will take time, and the answers could be long in coming, but he wants another dominant run on all surfaces. It might be his last best fight to return to ultimate glory.