Between “Laguna Beach” and the occasional baseball game—hasn’t October been relaxing without the Yankees-Sox’ billion-dollar psychodrama?—I caught a fair amount of the men’s Masters Series event from Madrid last week. The five-set final, between the immovable object, Ivan Ljubicic, and the irresistible force, Rafael Nadal, was long enough for me to watch the first set, go play a full squash match, and come back to catch the last two hours.
Here, player-by-player, is what sticks in my head from Madrid.
I had thought that his win over Guillermo Coria in a fifth-set tiebreaker in Rome in May was the best performance of 2005, but he may have topped it in Madrid. Not only did Nadal pull off a miraculous comeback against the tour’s hottest player in the final, he single-handedly made the event, a top-tier tournament that was missing Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, and defending champion Marat Safin, a rousing success. There was a soccer-match atmosphere whenever he played, and a woman who I believe was the Queen of Spain showed up for the final (whoever she was, she was nearly in tears by the finish).
As always, Nadal was filled with freakish, sweaty energy from beginning to end on Sunday. He hit a jumping forehand—in the warm-up. Three hours and 40 minutes later, he prepared for the fifth-set tiebreaker by doing a few boxer-style shuffle-steps across the back of the court. It looked like he might even throw a few shadow punches for good measure.
Youthful exuberance aside, the kid is a born master of court psychology. He begins by making his opponent and the chair umpire wait until he’s ready to come out for the pre-match coin toss. (I’m not sure what would happen if his opponent refused to go out first; would the match ever begin?) As the umpire tosses the coin, Nadal stands a few inches from the net, bouncing around and staring just above his opponent’s head. During play, he continues at his own pace, whether he’s serving or receiving, and invariably slows things down when he loses a few points. In the Montreal final this summer, Agassi, who’s used to setting a fast pace against intimidated opponents, complained that Nadal was taking too long in his return games. It didn’t seem to affect the teenager’s pace.
Coming into the final, I picked Ljubicic to pull off an upset. He had won 16 straight matches, two straight tournaments, and he has a game that matches up well against Nadal’s. Ljubicic’s backhand is his better stroke—it’s one of the best one-handers in the world—and that’s where Nadal’s lefty forehand naturally goes. Plus, the Croat can punish Nadal’s often-short ground strokes. That’s what happened for two sets. Ljubicic was just too good. Tired from a long month of tennis, he was playing quick-strike tennis, going for return-of-serve winners and taking huge chances with his second serve.
It was all working until Nadal dug in at the beginning of the third set. He broke for the first time after a long game at 1-2 and got his teeth into the match. His mental resilience was amazing, but we already knew that. What was interesting was seeing him change his game and slowly take control of the points from the baseline, which he had been losing badly. In the third set, the average speed of Nadal’s forehand was faster than it had been in the first two sets (not an easy thing to do), and he began pounding it deep into Ljubicic’s inconsistent forehand. It was a new match, and Nadal never let go of it. He won despite hitting a full 50 fewer winners than his opponent. When it was over, British TV commentator John Barrett searched for an appropriate way to describe how Nadal had brought himself back from the dead. He eventually came up with this: “Sheer cussedness.”
This was the fourth Masters Series title this year for Nadal. That ties the single-season record set just this summer by Roger Federer in Cincinnati. It also ties him with Federer for most total titles in 2005, with 11. Nadal has 79 wins on the season, two more than Federer, and he and Federer have split all eight Masters events, an unprecedented stat. This year the men’s tour has produced not one, but two of the best seasons in tennis history.
One more thing about Nadal: I think we can now say that he has invented a shot. I’ll call it the desperation open-stance short-hop backhand pass. Not only does Nadal hit it often, he cracks it for winners. What makes it particularly devastating is that he hits it just at the moment when his opponent thinks he has the point won.
I know he’s a war refugee from Bosnia and a gutsy competitor, but I’ve never warmed to Ljubicic. He’s always seemed a little dour and self-righteous, a man in search of a gripe. He’s complained about Andy Roddick’s on-court attitude more than once; this year at the U.S. Open he had a problem with Richard Gasquet; and in the semifinals Saturday he complained about the way one of the supermodel ball girls in Madrid was throwing him the ball (he apologized afterward). Even yesterday, Ljubicic didn’t meet Nadal at the net after the match but forced the champion to find him and shake his hand next to his sideline chair.
But there’s no denying that Ljubicic is a big-match player. He’s 9-0 this year in the pressure-cooker of Davis Cup and has reached eight finals—outside of the Slams, he may be having the third-best year of any man in 2005. He plays a harsh brand of tennis, based around a nasty serve and backhand, and he always seems in control of the situation.
Ljubicic was all class at the end of this one. He praised the crowd, who had been cheering his unforced errors, and then got in a good-natured champagne-spraying battle with Nadal, the guy who just stolen what would have been his biggest tour win. It’s hard not to warm to that.
I didn’t just pick Nadal to lose the final to Ljubicic, I thought he was going to lose to Ginepri in the semifinals. The American had looked strong in thrashing the scrappy David Ferrer one round earlier, and he’s developed a style—baseline grinding backed up with a monster serve—that’s exceedingly difficult to break down.
As the Ginepri-Nadal semi began, Barrett told TV viewers, in his very British way, “Unquestionably there’s a tingle in the air.” The match turned out to be a tight two-setter, with a number of momentum changes, but you could see Ginepri felt the extra pressure of having to be perfect against a guy as steady and opportunistic as Nadal.
This match aside, Ginepri has found a nice balance between rock-like consistency and the ability to hit an unexpected winner on a big point. He’s carved out a comfort zone about four feet behind the baseline where he can do pretty much anything he wants—smoke a crosscourt forehand, roll a short-angle backhand, play for court position with a moonball, and use his ridiculous speed to track everything down. Now if only he would show a little fire. Ginepri’s laid-back calmness helps him in big situations. It also makes me miss his countryman Andy Roddick’s amped-up charisma.
The Argentine, who lost to Ljubicic in the semis, is a curious case. He’s hard working and gritty, yet he rarely wins tournaments. He’s taken home only three in his career despite having reached the Wimbledon final and the semifinals at Roland Garros and the U.S. Open. And in two Masters finals last year, he was blown off the court.
In mental approach and playing style, Nalbandian is sort of the anti-Nadal. He seems satisfied with going deep into an event, but he can’t or won’t lift his game at the biggest moments. And Nalbandian’s absolute smoothness—is there another player who looks so totally under control during all of his strokes?—makes Nadal looks an overeager hack who’s terminally out of position. Perhaps that’s what makes Nadal so good. He’s had to find ways to overcome his unorthodox strokes; Nalbandian, king of the orthodox, hasn’t.
Champion or not, Nalbandian is worth watching for his backhand alone. Typically, it’s the one-hander that wins style points—think of Federer, Gaston Gaudio, Justine Henin-Hardenne, Richard Gasquet, even Andrei Pavel. But Nalbandian’s two-hander is their match for artistry.
Which leaves me with a question: Why is it always the pros’ backhands we call out for their beauty? Why is the forehand just a “weapon”?
I’ll leave you to ponder—or, if you’re a normal person, not ponder—that one until next week.
Finally, Ion Tiriac
Tennis’ Count Dracula, looking prosperous as always, was on hand to help present the winner’s trophies yesterday. During the week, his face, impassive behind his beard and dark glasses, would appear now and then in the stands behind the court. It reminded me of the camera finding him after Boris Becker won Wimbledon for the first time. While fans stood and cheered around him, Tiriac, who was Becker’s manager, didn’t move a muscle. He looked like he already knew the trouble that was in store for his 17-year-old charge.
By now, Tiriac, who began as an Olympic ice hockey player for Romania in the 1960s, has become the Zelig of tennis, the guy who’s always there. He led Romania against the U.S. in a series of notorious Davis Cup matches in the 70s, helped bring Becker to fame in the 80s, and, as the tournament owner in Madrid, is currently presiding over the game’s next great leap forward: the hiring of supermodels as ball girls. An idea whose time has come, to be sure—just work on those skirts for next year, Ion, they were a little "long".