Introduction: Rafael Nadal and Lleyton Hewitt are the best embodiments of heart, determination and dedication on the ATP Tour. Both men’s games also depend on traits such as consistency, speed and defense.
In that sense, it’s fitting that they are now meeting for the ninth time, having split their first eight meetings, and this is their third clash at Roland Garros in four years. Hewitt won their first three matches on hard courts when he was a top 5 player and Nadal had not yet broken through, but since then Nadal has won four of five, including all three on clay.
Hewitt, currently ranked No. 48 in the world, is still climbing back following hip surgery last fall, and is not expected to beat the world’s No. 1 player on his best surface. The Aussie is still not the kind of player anyone wants to meet in week one of a major, though, Nadal included.
Rafael Nadal: As great as his 2008 was, the 2009 season is shaping up to be an even better one for the Mallorcan Mauler, as he is the Australian Open champion and has won three of the five Master’s Series events so far this year. With his victories over Marcos Daniel and Teimuraz Gabashvili in rounds one and two, the four-time RG champion has now won 30 straight matches on Paris clay, a record for either gender.
The three clay tournaments he has won this year, however, received less attention than the one in which he fell one match short: His loss to Roger Federer in the Madrid final seemingly opened the door, leaving the rest of the men on tour with a reason to hope.
This is a door Nadal will be looking to shut. The Spaniard does not typically start hitting his stride until round three, reaching his peak for the round of 16 and the quarters, where he makes examples of those who would dare step onto Court Philippe Chatrier with him.
In 2007, this was evident in his straight set shellackings of Hewitt and Carlos Moya in R16 and the quarters. Last year, he used those rounds to administer shocking beatings to Fernando Verdasco and Nicolas Almagro, losing an average of one game per set.
The bad news for Hewitt is that Nadal is getting closer to his summit: His win over Gabashvili was far more comprehensive than against Daniel. The good news is that, if the past two years are any indication, there should be one more round before his ascent is complete.
The odds of a Nadal loss are slim to none, but Hewitt is the kind of player who can expose what vulnerabilities there are, and a long match could potentially hurt Nadal’s title defense down the road.
Will Win If: Nadal can expect a victory is he plays reasonably well and his knees hold out.
Will Lose If: For Nadal to lose this match would probably require tremendous play from Hewitt, coupled with a significant injury and/or food poisoning.
Intangibles: The previous two sentences were not meant to disrespect Hewitt, one of the most spirited competitors tennis has ever seen. He’s known pretty good results on clay, and tends to elevate his performance at majors, the RG included. A match between these on another surface might well be a thriller.
Nadal’s results on the dirt, however, are simply stratospheric. Since 2006 he’s won 18 titles on clay, losing only three matches – his two against Federer being the only ones that weren’t attributable to injury.
There is very little doubt as to who will advance to the round of 16 from this match, but what happens here has considerable implications for the future of both players. A match that reaches four sets will show Hewitt to be well on his way to recovering his old level of play, and will bode well for his Wimbledon and US Open results.
A four set result might also raise doubts about Nadal’s play following his Madrid loss, giving others, Federer and Novak Djokovic in particular, hope. If the Spaniard crushes the Aussie, however, the doubts about his ability to win his fifth RG would recede even further.
This should be weighing on the minds of both men.
Shots to Look For: The round of 16 matches between these two in the 2006 and 2007 RGs should give us all the clues we need. In set one in 2006 Nadal’s forehand was pushing Hewitt around the court, pinning the Aussie in his backhand corner, eventually allowing the Spaniard to rip winners into the opposite side.
In the second set, Hewitt clung on to his service games, not surrendering them no matter how many break points he faced. Near the end of the set, Nadal began to tire, largely because of his five-hour, four-set prior round match with Paul-Henri Mathieu. He began missing first serves and his groundstrokes began to sit up in the middle to the court, allowing Hewitt to take advantage with his flatter shots.
Hewitt won the second set, and pushed Nadal in the third before losing in four.
In 2007 they met again, and this time the Spaniard won in straight sets, with only the third being competitive.
The main difference in those matches was Nadal’s forehand: Hewitt’s backhand, serve and volleys are at least as good, maybe better than the Spaniard’s. However, if Nadal is achieving good court penetration throughout the match, pushing Hewitt beyond the baseline and making him hit groundstrokes that are kicking up over his head, it will be over in straights.
Nadal can certainly help himself by making a lot of first serves and hitting his backhand through the court, but the forehand is ultimately central to this result.
My Call: It’s hardly bold to simply say, “Nadal in straight sets,” so let’s try to be more detailed: Hewitt will make this match competitive for a set before Nadal takes over. After that, he’ll have no answer for the forehand of the Spaniard, who will then send a message to his second week opponents. My approximation – 7-5, 6-1, 6-3, with even better play to come in round four.