Rafael Nadal's 7-6(1), 6-4 loss to David Ferrer in the 2014 Monte Carlo quarterfinals filled up a scoresheet of technical difficulties for the world No. 1. Playing at one of his favorite venues, Nadal never could establish the marksmanship that has made him so dominant on clay.
Ferrer picked up his second career clay-court victory against Nadal with his usual energy and added a couple of successful tactical maneuvers.
But the story was still Nadal. What happened?
From the opening toss, Ferrer played with greater energy than Nadal. He bounced up and down on his feet with a sense of alert opportunity. This was a pronounced contrast to the glowering Nadal, who paced around to gather himself, barking at the towel boy and trying to fight through his malaise.
Ferrer broke early by hitting with greater pace than Nadal. He flattened out several shots and forced Nadal to run harder and defend. Even when Ferrer dropped a grueling third game that lasted 15 minutes and 52 seconds and gave up the sixth break-point opportunity, he was resilient.
He continued to attack the Nadal backhand, going after it 79 percent of the time deep into the first set, according to Tennis TV:
Nadal's backhand is usually the indicator of how well he is playing. Many of his defeats show him leaving his backhand short, but in this match he was especially missing wide. Some of this was sloppiness, but he was clearly concerned about Ferrer's speed. He was trying to cut his angles too precisely, knowing that he couldn't afford to let Ferrer tee off on short, running forehands.
The players traded two breaks early in the first set and were settled into a physical match. Nadal wore down at times and was perhaps more bothered that Ferrer was not cracking. Nadal rarely won easy points and in particular struggled to set up his one-two serving combination: effective placement to coerce a poor service return, followed by a powerful forehand blast.
Easy service points were often lacking.
Monte Carlo's courts have a reputation of being some of the slowest in the world, but the surface is playing faster this year, as noted by Nick Nemeroff of Tennis View Magazine:
Courts playing pretty swiftly in Monte Carlo as far as I can tell.— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) April 15, 2014
Additionally, Nadal's topspin forehand was not biting and hopping effectively on Ferrer. Normally, Nadal can control the pace and positioning of his attack by setting up enough high-toppers. Ferrer responded by picking up some of them early and peppering his own flat backhand for a few impressive cross-court responses.
But mostly, he hammered away at Nadal with most of his shots down the line instead of cross-court replies to Nadal's lefty-forehand weapon. Time and again, Nadal was forced to hit his backhand or try with a flatter, in-and-out forehand. And Ferrer retrieved most of those with ease.
Nadal played from behind in the entire first set. Then he took the first point of the tiebreaker, but it would prove to be his only lead of the match. Ferrer merely kept the ball in play, and Nadal suddenly could not find the court. He was blitzed by self-destructive and inexplicable errors.
The first set lasted one hour and 25 minutes. Nadal was going to have to win two tough sets, but on this day, the follow-up set would see him fade away.
Ferrer was so locked in he didn't notice that Nadal was still toweling off when he unleashed his first serve. It was semi-comical, and Nadal motioned his apology, but the moment emphasized their day.
While Ferrer was ready, Nadal languished.
It was no surprise to see Ferrer continue to fight with his usual energy. Even when he pushed shots of his own, he was unfazed. His short memory never allowed him to get discouraged, and he did not allow Nadal to seize any momentum.
Nadal fell apart in the third game with a series of errors. He sailed a long forehand from his deuce corner, trying to pull it away from the pesky Ferrer. He missed on another wide backhand that had Uncle Toni looking at the sky. Finally, a poor decision to try a drop shot completed the break. Nadal had controlled the point early but was unwilling to work the rally for a couple of more shots.
It was a blend of impatience from Nadal and pressure from Ferrer.
Nadal's level of play dropped. There were not enough lasso forehands and ad-court exchanges, unless Ferrer was redlining an effective, flat backhand counter. Ferrer simply was not going to be a punching bag to Nadal's forehand body blows.
The errors kept piling up for Nadal, and the ATP World Tour final results would show 44 unforced errors to Ferrer's 28. (They each hit 24 winners). The key explanation was Ferrer's strategy to pester the Nadal backhand and follow up with his own inside-out pressure. Nadal was slower to retrieve and too often found that his defensive split slide couldn't return the shot.
Ferrer tightened with a 5-2, double-break lead but held off Nadal in his second attempt to serve out the match. Ferrer went up 30-0 when he hit a particularly gutsy inside-in forehand as he was falling outside the ad court. At 30-30, he finished with another big forehand on a short ball.
When Ferrer finally earned his victory, he did not fall down and celebrate as if he had won a Grand Slam title. He calmly shook Nadal's hand and showed the kind of composure and respect from one competitor to another. He was gracious against his more dominant rival when he had all the reasons in the world to uncork his emotions.
Nadal played a lackluster match, but Ferrer determined how the match was played. He took away Nadal's best positions and forehand control. Ferrer executed enough variety and flat replies to create enough of Nadal's shakiness. He wrestled, hung in and finished his work.
He will now go on to play Stanislas Wawrinka in the semifinals and is alive and well for what would be the biggest Masters 1000 title of his career. Still, a lot of work remains, and he will not be favored.
For Nadal, the disappointments in 2014 have followed patterns of seeing his opponents show a superior attack that has forced him to play away from his more methodical patterns. Though Nadal has the capacity to adapt and use the full court, he has been reluctant and uncomfortable to play this way.
He's going to need to sharpen both strokes with flatter power if he cannot set up enough rallies with his famed, loopy topspin. His best opponents are not going to sit back and trade shots as if they were old bar flies exchanging stories.
Nadal will need to step up his own aggressiveness, even on the usually comforting confines of clay.