Rafa Nadal: Gearing Up to Win
Story lines develop every year in tennis—some new, some continuations from the leftovers of the previous year.
How these develop would, in any other era, have depended on what the draws throw out. But tennis right now is blessed with such a depth in talent that the draw will always promise to take up some exciting thread or another, however random it is—it's impossible to miss something or the other.
And this time, though the defending champion was missing, the draw looked to continue many of the existing story lines on the most exciting stage for tennis.
Others had more than one character: How will Rafael Nadal fare against Nalbandian, Berdych, Gulbis, all big hitters and his Achilles heel. Will Federer and Nadal face in the finals?
And here we are at the tail end of the Slam, and most would say that not only did the draw not hold out, with a galore of upsets, it did not even look like the draw many remembered from first seeing it. Berdych, Murray, Nalbandian all fell apart. So did Roddick, and Isner. And then in a desperate attempt to salvage the situation, the fans consoled themselves saying that a Federer Nadal final was on the cards.
That Rafael Nadal is in ominous form, and so is Federer and both are battling not their opponents, but also the elements as well as any men to wield a racquet have. That this is going to be their best match ever.
And after Rafa's rout over Mikhail Youzhny, one end of the bargain had been kept. And the other would soon be kept. They willed the tennis Gods to do their bidding.
Well, four hours later, we have the news, "good" or "bad" is left to you to decide—Joker has won over Batman. And it is fitting too, for in their almost platonic, symbiotic relationship, as has it been for Federer and Novak Djokovic at the Open, where Nole has been happily filling the spot that Rafael Nadal was sooner or later expected to take up, the Joker deserves his victories too.
Rafa started this year having all sorts of problems—difficulty to play himself into form, injuries, and lack of confidence because of lack of tournament victories. And the clay, loyal as it has been to its master over the years, came to his aid when he most needed it. Rounding off one of the most remarkable achievements on clay winning the "clay slam," on the back of a trimmed schedule he had got back his confidence and mo-jo for passing shots.
In winning the French Open and Wimbledon, he not only settled old scores, but also worked his way back to what many people consider "pre" Australian Open 2009 form. And that was not all. He showed a clinical ability to peak for the finals, and an even fitter mentality, playing clutch tennis to perfection.
And true to his commitment to career longevity, he immediately dropped off the radar, spending time with family, friends and for treatment of his knees.
After this prolonged break, and keeping with the popular notion that Rafa needs a lot of matches under his belt to find his rhythm, he did not perform well in the warm-up events to the US Open.
But start the US Open, and we see 130mph serves and a stronger hold-game then before, getting broken only twice in the lead up to the finals. Wonder what changing the grip a little bit can help you—from Eastern to Continental, almost like choosing which cuisine you like for dinner.
The steady progress he has made again suggests only one thing—Rafa's practice to scheduling to tournament preparation has hit the optimum for peaking for the tournament finals. And we are yet to see his best in this tournament come Sunday.
Now lets analyze the chances from a pro-Rafa perspective.
Rafael Will Win If...
He serves as well as he has done so far this tournament. It used to be difficult to hold serve against him, but now with a bullet-proof service game, you have no where to go.
The new flat bombshells have lent his slower serves even more credibility. The variance you got to face from across the net is now larger. And he has shown the acuteness of a good, even great server in mixing up his service arsenal and picking his spots correctly.
He also needs to shield himself from his clay court mentality, which if the matches so far are indicative of anything, is safely under lock and key. He takes the ball earlier and from closer to the baseline now without giving too much ground. His backhand wing is achieving the potency it had at the 2009 Australian Open, with cross court winners, and down the line control-gaining strokes.
The inside out and down the line forehands are looking great as usual. And the wide serve or the cross court forehand opening up the court with the one down the line is working to perfection. The inside out and down the line forehands also play to Nole's forehand, to setup which Nole needs more time than he needs for his backhand. So if these strokes are working, then he can setup a turret aiming the opponent's technically weaker wing.
He should be well aware that Djokovic is probably spent from his almost four-hour match against Federer today. Hence he could also go for slightly higher percentage strokes towards both wings aiming for a foot within the lines, trying to get Nole moving and break down his defenses and fitness rather than go for outright aggressive winners. Once that threshold is reached, then it might be plain sailing.
Rafael Will Lose If...
The real Nole in his absolute best form turns up tomorrow.
Because put simply, Nole has been a better player on hardcourts compared to Rafa. And Rafa's loopy cross-court forehands play to Djokovic's stronger wing—his backhand.
Murray and Djokovic have been able to sort of dominate Rafa on hardcourts due to the simple reason that they have rock solid backhands. And Rafa's staple shot in a rally, the loopy cross-court forehand falls into the strike zone of their backhands, especially since on the DecoTurf, the ball bounces well over a foot less than it does on clay.
So if Rafa is unable to avoid his cross court forehands from falling in the comfort zone of Djokovic's backhand (throw in more acute angles when they are actually hit or hit with more pace), then he is going to be in trouble instantly.
Djokovic was seen in many colours today - defending exceptionally, and attacking clinically. Frustrating Federer and extracting errors from his forehand wing, or transitioning seamlessly to unload on his forehand, to finishing his points at the net with deft volleys, Djokovic played almost the perfect match today. Though Federer could take those baseline-kissing flattened out strokes, the same doesn't hold for Nadal whose extreme grip renders it necessary for him to have a convoluted swing on the forehand side.
He also read Federer's serve very well. And part of Federer's poor serving numbers can be put down to that. Of course the difficulty in facing Rafa's spin serve is not in anticipating it, but in the spin itself. But if Djokovic can read the serve as well as today, he might well make the flat delivery ineffective.
Also, if Rafa's movement is suspect, Djokovic's use of the drop-shot will put him off further.
The intangible of course is how well rested and recovered Nole will be in tomorrow's final. Not only was his semifinal physically draining, it must have been mentally intolerable, as evidenced by his inclination to injure himself with his racquet—hitting his head with the "Head." The fact that he is in a Slam final after a long time is only going to add to pressure. Advantage Nadal.
Also the wind could be a factor, and though both players have shown a nice ability to adapt to extreme conditions, Nadal's strokes with built in margin for error will be favoured.
Shots to look out for...
Djokovic's delicate drop shots from the baseline, and Nadal's banana forehand.
Rafael Nadal in four sets.