Monday, 25 April 2011

Rafael Nadal - Who Can Stop Him On Clay?

Courtesy: The Times (subscription required)

It cannot be coincidence that the three players to dominate men’s clay-court tennis in the past 35 years have been left-handers built like and enjoying the constitution of bull mastiffs.

The careers of Guillermo Vilas and Thomas Muster — who has not given up yet at the age of 43 — were marked by an inexhaustible will and bludgeoning efficiency. The 21st-century model is threatening to outstrip them both.

With victory in the Banco Sabadell Open in Barcelona yesterday, Rafael Nadal celebrated a 31st title from 33 clay-court finals, his 34th win in succession on the surface since the terrible letdown against Robin Söderling, of Sweden, at the last-16 stage in the 2009 French Open and his 501st victory on the ATP World Tour. He is the second youngest to reach the five-century mark after Björn Borg, who retired from tennis at the age of 26. Nadal will turn 25 on June 3.

After a few days practising on his home island of Majorca, Nadal will fly to Madrid, where he is the defending champion, on to Rome, ditto, and then to Paris for more of the same to attempt to win a sixth French Open.

Imagine the pressures to sustain a standard that is something so singular, on this surface of all, against a limitless supply of superb professionals. And, don’t forget, he entered the clay season having recently reached the finals of the hard-court Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Key Biscayne.

What sets Nadal apart is there for all to see, yet demanding to quantify. When he is playing in a tournament, it is worth no more or less to him than any other (he does not do warm-ups); when he plays any point, it is as if it is a championship point; when he practises, he hates to miss. He does not waste a single second granted to him.

His ability to effect the subtle changes in footwork, to work on the minor elements that win the majors, is what sets him apart. His mantra, repeated many times, is that until he sees no prospect of improving his game, he will carry on. Do not expect that “illusion” to happen any time soon.

Last week, after a seventh consecutive Monte Carlo title, I asked Nadal about his statement that it was impossible to imagine repeating what he had done the previous years. “That’s what I feel,” he said. “When I am practising before the start of the clay season, I always think I’m going to be ready to play well and to win another time.

“But it is true that you never know when this will start and when it will end. You have to be ready to accept both these things. It is easier to accept if you think it is going to be impossible.

“When you go on court, every day you can win or you can lose. What I am saying is nothing strange. A 6-3, 6-4 win can mean the difference of three or four points and you have to be ready to win these three, four points — or you lose. I don’t know how much longer I will win these three, four points.”

For the first three months of the year, Novak Djokovic was winning those points. Now we will see if he can do it on clay, where his campaign begins this week in his native Serbia.

Of his 404 matches on red grit, Ivan Lendl won 329 and now, as he scours the world for someone he may be interested in coaching, he looks at Nadal and sees much of himself. In a time-and-motion study, it would be interesting to see who took longer to prepare: Lendl, with his insistence on rubbing sawdust into his racket handle, or Nadal, in wiping both arms with his towel and scraping the clay baseline. But it is this mental make-up, this preparation, this extraordinary attention to detail, where the two are so similar.

“I admire how he goes out and says, ‘OK, to win the US Open I need to improve my serve’ and he and his uncle [Toni] work on the serve,” Lendl said. “It is now a great weapon and that’s how you get better, that’s how you separate yourself from the rest.

“Two years ago [Roger] Federer was clearly better than anyone else, but it’s flip-flopped. It doesn’t mean Roger can’t win majors, but is anyone going to say Rafa will not win a major this year if he’s healthy? I believe several more. He and his uncle do a lot of right things.”

The chemistry between uncle and nephew cannot be replicated. Toni could not coach anyone else and Rafa would not be coached by anyone else. There are many times in victory that Rafa is not satisfied and he will run through the programme with you: forehand, backhand, serve, slice. He is a walking, talking programme, able to disseminate performances very quickly and resolve to put it right.

Because, for the first three years, he won the French Open and dominated on the dirt without a decent first serve, Nadal developed a wonderful ability to play the third stroke of a rally off his toes and remain in the rally when that edge was qualified by his ability to use short, angled forehands to either wing. His backhand slice, in defence or attack, has gained bite; his cross-court double-hander has come into its own.

Remember seeing Vilas and Muster in their pomp and strength, fitness and endurance spring to mind. Both were 5ft 11in, Nadal is 6ft 1in. Vilas, the Argentinian, once won seven consecutive titles — four on clay, three on hard courts — and won grand-slam tournaments on clay and grass; in 1995 the Austrian won 11 titles on clay, including at Roland Garros (his only grand-slam title, interestingly). Muster was reputed to have once run a marathon by accident when he took a wrong turn while jogging, and one could believe it.

For Nadal, the road is straight and true. Much like the campeón himself.

The five most likely

Andy Murray

Half the battle against Nadal is to believe you can beat him and Murray does. Why shouldn’t he? He is a craftsman on the court who can vary his game and has the patience and increasing levels of fitness required to stay with the master. The ability to get free points on serve is vital, but if can get into enough rallies, he has the game to cause problems.

Novak Djokovic

Needs mentally to get over nine successive clay-court losses to Nadal, but emboldened by two victories in finals on hard courts in the US, he took a two-week break and returns in his home event in Belgrade on clay. Put heart and soul into beautiful semi-final in Madrid two years ago, losing 11-9 in third-set tie-break. If he could get that one . . .

Roger Federer

Twelve of their 23 meetings have been on clay, of which Federer has won two, the finals of Hamburg in 2007 and Madrid in 2009, so he can beat Nadal on the big occasion. He knows what it takes. He needs to find a level of shot-making consistency that has been beyond him of late, but if he gets on a roll, is still a threat.

David Ferrer

Won on clay the first time they met, in Stuttgart seven years ago, and, at 29, is probably fitter now than he has ever been. Reaching two finals in successive weeks shows that this tenacious competitor believes in himself against almost everyone else in the game.

Robin Söderling

His fourth-round victory over Nadal at Roland Garros in 2009 remains the most remarkable of results, whether Nadal was suffering with sore knees or not. Has made two finals in France, clubs an enormous groundstroke, especially off the forehand side, but has not had a particularly strong start to the year and needs to find his form quickly.

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