US Open 2008: Rafael Nadal loses to Andy Murray, is He a Hard Court Contender?

Leon HorneAnalyst ISeptember 7, 2008

            I have been discussing Nadal’s recent run since the French Open with some avid tennis fans and players. Many people seem to feel he was much too defensive and used too much spin to win anything of importance on hard courts or grass. That was shown to be wrong this summer as Nadal went on a win streak, winning Queens, Wimbledon, the Roger’s Cup, making semi finals in Cincinnati and winning the gold medal in the Olympics.


            Then came the 2008 US open where Nadal went to the semi finals losing a total of 2 sets in five games. In yesterday’s and today’s match against Andy Murray things turned on Nadal and he lost the semi final to Murray in a fairly one sided four set outing (6-2, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4). Nadal previously held a 5-0 record against Murray, even beating him in 2 sets at the Roger’s Cup semi-final earlier this summer. 


            Something that stuck out to me in this match was Nadal looked tired and was not moving like he usually does which is his biggest asset. More surprising was the fact that Nadal seemed to go back to his style of years past for this match against Murray. Prior to this semi final Nadal had successfully managed to change his game style for hard courts. He began serving much better and hitting deeper, albeit he still had a lot of spin to his shots. However, in this weekend’s match against Murray, Nadal started and finished the match hitting balls short allowing Murray to attack them and get Nadal on the run.


            In the third set and the beginning of the fourth set against Murray, Nadal had been hitting the ball deeper not giving short easy balls for Murray to attack. What resulted was Nadal winning the third set 6-4 and being up 3-1 in the fourth. Why Nadal abandoned this style of play left me perplexed. It was clear that physically he was tired and not moving a quickly as usual, that being said shot selection is more a question of thought processes.


            Nadal hit the ball much deeper against Murray in Toronto. This allowed Nadal to dictate the points and really single out Murray’s forehand which seems to be one of his liabilities. Murray can hit a nice forehand, however it lacks consistency which is completely contrary to the Murray backhand. In the US open semi-final the short balls hurt Nadal because that allowed Murray to attack and dictate points and stopped Nadal from being able to attack Murray’s forehand.


            Now let us put somethings into perspective here after this US open semi-final. Some of my tennis friends are now saying Nadal’s serve is weak, he hits with too much spin and will never be a hard court contender. As if he wasn’t even a hard court contender in the first place right? Why was he seeded number one in the tournament then?


            Nadal certainly is not at his best on hard courts, his bread and butter is on clay and recently it appears like he maybe up there on the grass courts as well. This is not to say that Nadal does not know how to win on hard courts. He won the Roger’s cup in Toronto and Federer, Djokovic and Murray were there, players who are considered the top hard court players on the tour right now. Nadal also won Olympic gold, again a tournament where Federer, Djokovic and Murray were present.


            To say Nadal is not a hard court contender simply because he has not made an Australian or US open grand slam final isn’t really taking much into perspective. Yes losing in the semi final match of the USopen shows that Rafael Nadal is vulnerable on hard courts. However, the same has been shown for Federer, Djokovic and Murray who have all suffered some ups and downs over the past summer's hard court season.


            Secondly Nadal looks physically exhausted. On match point in this weekend’s semi final Nadal pretty much gave up on the point and for me that is the first time I have ever seen him give up on a point. Now he wasn’t the only player that has had a big summer, one just has to look at Djokovic in his semi-final loss against Federer this weekend. However, Nadal bases much of his game on his fitness and ability to get balls back that many other players couldn’t dream of getting back. So for a player who bases his game less on his speed and fitness, like Andy Roddick or Novak Djokovic for example being a step slower for these guys might not have the same effect as it has on a player like Nadal.


            The physical exhaustion isn’t really an excuse for Nadal, because he probably should work on developing a more offensive game for the hard court season next year. It is more a fact that he was physically tired and that it was affecting his play. This is not to take anything away from Andy Murray who came into the match with a game plan and managed to execute on all levels.


            All this to say maybe Nadal didn’t have it in him to win the US open this year, but his results on hard courts this 2008 have shown that he is a hard court contender. Nadal will be back next year and barring injury it wouldn’t be a total shock to see him in the Australian or US open final much like we saw what happened with him in Wimbledon over the last couple years. Nadal has been improving his game play on both grass and hard courts each and every season that he is on the tour.


            As for this years US open final, Federer will have his hands full with the Scot who in my opinion is the most improved player on the men’s side this year. However, this is Federer’s last chance to pick up a grand slam title for 2008 and he is clearly focused and playing the right kind of tennis to come away with it tomorrow.         


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