When there’s tension, we say you can cut it with a knife. What would the reverse metaphor be? You can cut the tension with your fat little finger? That’s all it would have taken this afternoon in Arthur Ashe Stadium as Rafael Nadal made his routine way through a third-round, straight-set win over Gilles Simon. This is par for the course during the daytime in Ashe, where the size of the stadium and the bland, corporate-ticket decorum that pervades the lower seats conspires to scatter any sense of collective fan passion to the swirling winds. While the arena’s grand scale adds to the sense of occasion during the night session, it usually leaves the day matches feeling pretty remote.
I’ve watched Nadal on days like this before in Ashe when he’s feeling much less comfortable. Energy is a major ingredient in his recipe, and it can be tough to generate in the afternoon here; contrast that with his nighttime play—the floodlights give Rafa a jolt. On Sunday, though, Nadal was in the kind of calm command that we’ve gotten used to seeing from him in his favorite European venues. If his performance wasn’t as electric as the one he put together over the last two sets in the second round, he still thought of it as an improvement.
“Today was a solid match,” he said. “For sure the important thing for me is I played better today than two days ago; and two days ago I played better than five days ago.”
Coming in, Simon had beaten Nadal once in four tries, but he’s an ideal opponent for Rafa. Which means, essentially, that he’s not tall enough or strong enough to step into the teeth of Nadal’s topspin; he had to take a lot of balls at shoulder height or higher. Simon said afterward that he thought he was playing well, that the first two sets were “nice,” and that he wasn’t all that bummed about losing. He also has a new son back in France who he hasn’t seen yet. By the third set, he said he “was already on the plane.”
So the outcome was never in doubt, and Simon was not the fiercest opponent that Rafa could have faced. Still, Nadal’s forehand was impressive; he hit it with more weight and depth than he did when I watched him in Toronto. The revelation, of course, is the serve. Nadal sounded happy in his presser that it was still as effective as it had been in the first two rounds. If he was a little unsure that it would be, that’s because the serve is the game's most autonomous stroke. No matter how much you practice it, it’s never the same from day to day—it almost feels out of your control. But once again, Nadal used it to bail himself out more often than he has in the past. After breaking to go up 2-1 in the first, he went down 0-30. From there, he hit a nice hook serve into the ad court for 30-30, a 126-m.p.h gunshot into the body for 40-30, and another nasty wide one for the game.
Nadal has made it through three matches without losing his serve. What happened? He wasn’t hitting it well in Toronto or Cincy, but he turned the corner in practice last week. Worried that he wasn’t earning enough free points, he “change little bit the grip” to keep his wrist firmer. Now he’s firing flat, 130-m.p.h bullets, consistently. It sounds a little like the story of how Bjorn Borg transformed his serve in the weeks between the French Open and Wimbledon in 1976. He turned his front foot a little, hit some buckets of serves, and voilà, he had the upgraded delivery that would win him the next five Wimbledons. Never underestimate what the world’s best athletes can pull off in no time at all.
So what would a big-serving Nadal look like and play like? Winning free points has been the one clear-cut advantage that his rivals have had on him, so it couldn’t hurt. Or could it? The only question may be whether serving bigger will change his usual rhythm from the baseline—will the ball come back faster and with more pace and throw him off? I'm guessing that Nadal is smart enough and accurate enough with whatever serve he uses to find the balance between flat and spin, to keep his opponent guessing, and to avoid overusing his new toy.
For example: Through the first set today, Nadal’s first-serve percentage dwindled even as he held on to his single-break advantage. At 5-4, he got nervous and went down 0-30. How did he get out of it? Service winner at 0-30, ace at 30-30, service winner at 40-30 to win the set. Two of those were slices, hit to slightly different spots, and one was the gunshot. Plenty of other guys carry that gun. The trick is getting it to go off at the right time, preferably when your opponent isn't expecting it. If history—or today—is any guide, that won’t be a problem for Rafa.
What else might help Nadal later in this tournament? A loss by Andy Murray, the guy who beat him in Toronto a month ago, you say? You got it: A tangled, testy, tired Murray was beaten in four sets today by Stan Wawrinka. The Second Swiss has been working with his countryman’s old coach Peter Lundgren, and I don’t think I’ve seen him play better.
Murray thought much the same, even if he wasn’t in the mood to elaborate. “I lost to a better player today,” he said, hunched unhappily before the assembled firing squad known as the (mostly British) press. “He served well and took his chances when he had them.”
Wawrinka broke through around the same time as Novak Djokovic, and I remember thinking way back when that they were roughly equal talents. Djokovic had the all-around game, the speed, and the hunger, but Wawrinka had the heavy strokes, especially from his backhand side. But as heavy as those strokes were, he has rarely found the court with them at the crucial moment. As often as any player I can think of, Wawrinka gained advantages in rallies only to give them away with brain-cramp errors. The same was true for a set and a half today; Wawrinka lost the first in a tiebreaker and went down 0-3 in the second. Half an hour later, he found himself in a stunning position: At the net, serving and volleying with decisiveness to finish the second set in a tiebreaker. He only got better from there.
Murray had won their last three meetings, but this time he was the one who gave the advantage back. It reminded me of a couple of his losses at the majors in 2009, when he allowed an erratic heavy hitter just enough time and ground to find a groove. Murray, who was treated for a thigh problem, as well as “pins and needles” in his arm, also speculated that he “could have been” fatigued, something we don’t expect from him. (Let the world’s speculation begin: Has mono struck again?) He cursed himself, punched his strings, and by the middle of the fourth had completely lost the initiative. You’re not going to win many third-round matches, let alone Grand Slams, if the only stroke you can hit for a winner is your crosscourt backhand from the middle of the court.
Two shots summed up Murray’s day for me. The first came at 2-1 in the fourth, with the match anything but decided. Given a mid-court ball on his backhand side, he leaned forward, hit an approach on the rise, and followed it forward. The ball sailed long, but what struck me most was how infrequently I’d seen Murray hit that on-the-rise shot, a shot that should be a staple of his game. His backhand is too good for him not to try to use it like that more often. But as this error showed, Murray struggles when he comes forward. The second memorable moment came in the final game, when Wawrinka was serving it out. The Swiss hit a crosscourt approach, a no-no shot that can typically be taken advantage of. Not by Murray, though: He was caught at least six feet behind the baseline and had to try a desperation crosscourt pass that landed well wide.
Murray’s responses were short and curt today, and he gave no ground. With his hair snarled in sweat and his face pasty, he looked, more than anything, wasted. He said he had no “secret answer” for how to win a Slam. Watching him flail his way to defeat in the final few games, I thought of what I had just written about Nadal, about his ability to pick and choose his weapons and use each effectively. Picking and choosing isn’t the problem for Murray. He’s constantly urged to attack more, to move forward, to play more offensively. But he can’t do that with the shots he has; it’s not how he plays tennis. He’s a counterpuncher and a runner and a rally-builder, a guy who doesn’t, who can’t, go for the kill in one or two shots.
If Murray asked Rafael Nadal, or Bjorn Borg, they might adivse him to “change a little the grip” on your forehand, practice for a week, and voilà, you’ll have a new stroke, and a new Grand Slam-winning game. Sounds like the easiest thing in the world. Unfortunately, the rest of us, Murray included, must fire the weapons we’re dealt.