3 Rounds Against The Champ?
By TW Contributing Editors Ed McGrogan and Andrew Burton
Andrew: Well, Ed, the sixth Masters Series tournament of 2008 is in the books, and this is the third won by Rafael Nadal. With two Majors, Barcelona and Queens also under his belt, this is shaping up as a career year for Nadal. It's odd to call it a breakout year given that he's been the world number two for the last three years, but there's no question who's the dominant player in the game in the summer of 2008.
Ed: Talk about a kicking someone while you're down - and I'm referring to the Federer fanatics, of course, who are still reeling from Wimbledon. Nadal did the same to the Toronto field this week, and Kiefer was the final player to receive his comeuppance.
Simply put, Rafa was and is by far the better player. More specifically, Nadal prevented Kiefer from getting in any sort of “zone” today. And at Nadal’s current form, that’s where opponents will need to be to defeat him. Kiefer’s few weapons were thwarted by Nadal’s returning shots, which often put Nicolas in uncomfortable spots. The unforced errors then began to flow. Toss in an underrated serving performance (in only one game did Nadal face break points), and you have a routine Nadal win on another big stage.
Andrew: It was Kiefer's first ATP final in three years, and he hadn't won a tournament since Hong Kong in 2000. He's a solid-looking chap, but against Nadal he had something of the air of a fellow who's had two or three Budweisers and been pushed into the ring at the fairground - you know, "last three rounds against the Champ, and win $200!!!"
The Champ usually lets you dance around for 90 seconds and throw a couple of jabs, then throws a quick combination. Suddenly you're backpedaling and looking for a place to hide, but Nadal makes the court (or the ring) seem awfully small.
Ed: Kiefer at the carnival? I like the analogy. After all, he did try that "throwing the racquet" trick again today, like he did against Sebastien Grosjean at the 2006 Australian Open. (Though this time, his opponent actually hit the ball over the net before Kiefer's toss.)
In spite of Kiefer's inability to threaten Nadal, he did have a real nice tournament. He beat two big names in Nikolay Davydenko and James Blake, and took advantage of an upset-riddled side of the draw. He’s played well in his last few events – quarters of Hamburg, semis of Halle, and third round at Wimbledon – but I wouldn't bank on the veteran showing staying power near the top. Facing championship point, Kiefer tossed the ball up for his first serve, but caught it, instead of hitting it. I think he wanted to be caught in this moment for one last time.
Andrew: Kiefer's main chance coming into the match, it seemed to me, was to hit two out of three first serves in, then mix it up. He started the match with two holds, but made no impression on Nadal's serve. Kiefer had needed a dominant serving performance to have a chance in this match, but it wasn't to be. He's a 52% first server for the year - today it was 47%, and he won only 30% of the points on his second serve. He'll be pleased about his performance in this tournament, but not, I regret, about what he did today.
More ominously, for me, he seemed to be aiming for the long strike: Kiefer set up about six feet behind the baseline and off neutral balls was aiming down the line for winners into the corners. He made very few of these shots, and throughout the match he was rarely able to move Nadal out of position.
Nadal, on the other hand, has impressed me with his offense throughout the tournament. It starts with the serve, but it continues with point construction which moves his opponent into uncomfortable positions. Nadal went 10/10 on net points throughout the match, including one BH smash OH that had Peter Burwash in the TSN booth purring.
Ed: The shot that I thought Kiefer had the best chance with was his backhand, which at times was hit accurately and with some pop. But it wasn't struck with the type of consistency needed to trouble Nadal throughout the entire match. To Nadal’s credit, he never underestimated Kiefer – saying so in his interview last night, and practicing what he preached on court today. The intense focus was again on full display.
Andrew: Kiefer briefly threatened to make a match of it in the sixth game of the second set. We had six deuces, and Kiefer set up three BPs. On the first, he simply dumped his second shot in the net; on the second, a DTL FH for a winner landed half an inch outside the ad sideline. Kiefer challenged, which was smart - a 1% in call might, just might, have changed the momentum of the match. On the third BP, Kiefer played a nice touch BH drop shot, but chose not to close the net behind it. Nadal's legs are fresher than Gilles Simon's were yesterday. He made the ground and responded with his own FH drop shot, and put away the despairing Kiefer pick up.
On Kiefer's next service game, all the wheels came off. From 30-0 up (two big first serves), Kiefer double faulted twice, then shanked a ground stroke off a neutral Nadal slice. At 30-40, Nadal rolled three FHs into the center of the court, then drove Kiefer deep and wide with a venomous CC BH and finished the point with a FH winner. All Kiefer could do was toss his racquet in despair at the ball. Nadal then held at love. If it was a boxing match, the challenger would have been pinned in the corner with his elbows and gloves in front of his face, giving the Champ a choice of body shots or roundhouse hooks.
Ed: I’d also like to mention Nadal’s service hold at love in the next game, which emphatically signaled that this match was over. If Rafa loses serve there, all the momentum built from the six-deuce hold and the break thereafter is lost. Looking back, this may have been where Kiefer could have caught Nadal off guard, except Rafa gave him no opening whatsoever. I'm confident that Kiefer fully believed he could beat Nadal, but it was here when he may have finally accepted his fate.
Andrew: Someone in the stands held up a sign that was picked up on the Jumbotron midway through the second set. In magic marker on yellow card, it read simply "Where Is Federer?" It's not easy as a fan of the guy to write this, but had I had my own card and magic marker, I'd have written "Half a lap behind" (apologies for the mixed sporting metaphor, BTW).
One of the key attributes of a winning tennis player is closing out matches. Federer's loss to Simon was only the second this year when he'd won the first set (the other was to Murray), but it also came from a point where Federer was serving at 4-3 in the third with a break. I doubt that I'm alone in thinking that once Nadal had the lead, he wouldn't surrender it.
Ed: Andrew is part of the royal family of tennis statisticians, so I'm not even going to try to compete with him. But here's my two cents: Nadal went 4 for 4 on break point chances, but I thought that Kiefer’s 31 unforced errors was a much more telling statistic. No matter who was serving, Nadal ruled when the rallies began. The 6-3, 6-2, final score may not give Kiefer enough credit for how he hung in there, but the match was nonetheless a one-sided affair.
Andrew: Several journalists tried to draw Nadal out on the prospect of becoming No. 1 next week at his press conference. He showed more message discipline than a White House Press Secretary, insisting that he was still No. 2 and happy to be No. 2, although he'd like to be No. 1 like all players.
Ed: Yes - the ATP guy in the interview room had to halt all those types of questions with a plea of "Any questions about today's match?" But obviously, that's where the discussion is these days, since the official changing of the guard could take place this week in Cincinnati. Does Nadal’s win this week, coupled with Roger’s sudden loss, make him the favorite at the U.S. Open? I’ve incorrectly gauged the Federer/Nadal rivalry so many times before – backing Roger – that I think I’ve learned my lesson. I think it's 50/50.
Andrew: Well, there's a lot more tennis to be played before we get to Flushing Meadows, on different continents. Who else will try their luck against the big two? Will Djokovic reassert himself? All of a sudden, he seems to be being counted out. I have a sense he may remind us he's still in the mix.
Anyhow, the most recent challenger has just been carted off with smelling salts under his nose, and the former Champ is trying to work out what's happened to his own knockout punch. Rafael Nadal, undefeated on three surfaces, is ready to hand out a few more bloody noses.