Man on a mission: Why Rafa will strike back in Madrid – but then lose in Paris

4 May

Rafa

Tennis writers have worked themselves into a frenzy trying to dissect Rafael Nadal’s recent fall from grace on clay (see here, here, and, for the most astute account, here). This isn’t surprising: When a player holds a 302-23 career record on the dirt, losses in back-to-back weeks – including in Barcelona, where Rafa hadn’t lost since he was 16 – seem worth at least some explanation. But with the doubters growing louder, expect the Spanish Bull to surge to victory at the ATP Masters Series 1000 this week in Madrid.

It pains me to make this prediction. As a die-hard Federista, I’ve long made it my business to highlight Nadal’s weaknesses while emphasizing the Swiss’ brilliance. But while I may be enormously biased, I’m not an idiot:[1] A determined Rafa is about as easy to stop as Big Baby Glen Davis rollin thru the lane.

Let’s be honest: People like to jump all over leading athletes when they show signs of mortality. Anyone who has followed Roger Federer over the last five years knows what I’m talking about. During that time, analysts have written Fed’s tennis obituary about a dozen times, only to see the Swiss win Wimbledon, regain the number one ranking, and, in 2014, creep back into the top five and win or go deep at nearly every tournament worth mentioning.

It’s true that Rafa’s losses in recent weeks seemed like more than hiccups. In Monte Carlo, he dropped a straight-set match to long-time whipping boy David Ferrer, to whom he hadn’t lost on clay in a decade. In Barcelona, Rafa dropped a three-set grind-fest to countryman Nicolas Almagro, against whom he hadn’t lost at all in ten previous encounters.

But there are several factors working in favor of a Rafa bounce-back in Madrid. First, he’s Rafa on clay. (See above about the 302-23 career record on the surface.) Losing to extremely skilled pros like Ferrer and Almagro who have endless motivation to beat you is not the same thing as an epic, Knoblauch-ian meltdown, in which elite athletes completely forget how to do something they could once do in their sleep.

Rafa had a couple of less-than-stellar matches. But even when he’s far from 100 percent, the Bull is still good enough to beat most players on most days. The upshot of setting the standard as high as Rafa has over the last decade on clay is that there’s plenty of room for error when you’re not at your best, even against top competitors.

Rafa also has a favorable draw in Madrid. World number two and Nadal-rival-in-chief Novak Djokovic did the Spaniard a favor and withdrew from the tournament, citing a lingering wrist injury suffered a couple of weeks ago in Monte Carlo. Knowing that a clash with Djokovic doesn’t wait in the wings will likely put Nadal’s mind at rest as he begins his quest for his second consecutive Madrid title.

The Spaniard will sleep walk thru the first three rounds, where his toughest potential opponent is Tommy Haas, for whom I have enormous respect and admiration. But, at 36, the German frankly has a better chance of rolling off the court in a wheelchair than beating Rafa.

From there, Nadal faces a tricky potential quarterfinal match-up with the Bulgarian Bear, Grigor Dimitrov, a rising star who is hitting his stride and gave Nadal all he could handle in the quarters at the Aussie Open.

But Grigor has two major problems. The first is his wardrobe: What the fuck is this? The second, less serious problem for Dimitrov is his likely match-up in the round of 16 with Tomas Berdych, who reached the final of the Portugal Open last week and is finding his form on clay. The faster conditions in Madrid suit Berdych’s powerful, if mind-numbingly boring (think Ivan Drago in Rocky IV), game quite well, and could prove too much to handle for Dimitrov, who has a tendency to fall back and play defensive tennis against harder-hitting players.

Still, Berdych is a one-trick pony, and Rafa would slice and dice him in the quarters. Lurking in the semis could be Federer, Murray, or one of a series of talented, clay-court loving Spaniards on that side of the draw, including, intriguingly, Almagro and Fernando Verdasco, who beat Rafa in Madrid in 2012. As much as I’d love to think Fed can use his recent momentum and Rafa’s “struggles” to get past the latter, I’m all too aware of their history on clay to truly believe this will materialize. As for Murray, I’ll be almost shocked if he makes it that far (watch him win the whole thing), and Rafa would be revved-up to pound the Spaniards who’ve, in Verdasco’s case, taken him down in Madrid in the past, and, in terms of Almagro, given rise to the recent storm of skepticism with respect to the persistence of Rafa’s clay-court dominance.

That takes us to the finals, where Nadal will likely need to put in a good effort to claim the title. There, he’ll face either Ferrer or Stanislas Wawrinka, who, on the back of his Australian Open triumph in January and maiden Masters 1000 victory two weeks ago in Monte Carlo, has been the best player thus far in 2014.

The reason I like Rafa to beat either of these competitors – or anyone else who should emerge from that side – is two-fold. First, despite the snafu in Monte Carlo, Nadal owns Ferrer. In terms of Stanislas, against whom the Spanish lefty would need to lift his game to emerge victorious, I’d point to the reality that Rafa often plays himself into tournaments, meaning he tends to get better as he goes along. Riding the support of adoring Madrileños, who, in addition to sharing his nationality, also appreciate Nadal’s vocal affinity for the Real Madrid football club (another reason not to like Rafa), I expect the Spaniard to step his game up in the final, knock-off Stani for a second year running, and blast his doubters into submission.

At least for a little while.

Post-script: The caveat to all of this is that Nadal’s triumph in Madrid will only obscure his looming downfall at the French Open.

Rafa is no longer the world’s best clay court player.

Novak Djokovic is.

Before the pesky wrist injury crept in, Djoker was winning everything in 2014, including the daunting double during the North American spring swing in Indian Wells and Miami. The Serb knows he has something to prove, both in terms of reclaiming his position as the world’s number one player, and solidifying his status among tennis’ all-time greats by starting to notch up major titles outside of Australia. 2014 is the year for Djokovic to make his move, and he knows there’d be no better place to start than on Rafa’s home turf at Stade Roland Garros.

In 2012, Novak was storming back against Rafa in the French Open final, before a rain delay stymied what may well have turned into a two-sets-to-love comeback., during which, in the third and early fourth sets, Djokovic reeled off eight consecutive games and had the commentators falling over themselves talking about how they’d never seen Nadal look so listless on clay. Then, last year, Djokovic held a break deep in the fifth set before succumbing to the Spaniard in a semi that should have been the final.

Now, Djokovic is playing for history, playing to capture the career grand slam, and, notwithstanding the wrist injury, has played better than Nadal throughout 2014. Nadal will regain his mojo, and his street cred, in Madrid. But his dominance on clay’s biggest stage will come to an end four weeks later on the red dirt in Paris.

Don’t believe the hype: Djokovic will win the French.

[1] At least not when it comes to tennis; well, I may be an idiot on this issue, as well, but hear me out.

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