In each of his matches this week, Rafael Nadal has shown something different as he eases into the 2012 season. Today, he showed us some of the best tennis he has played in a while as he overwhelmed a valiant Mikhail Youzhny, 6-4, 6-4, to book his place in the Doha semifinals.
Youzhny is one of the select few to have a decent number of wins over Nadal. He came into today 8-4 down in the head-to-head, and the Russian had nothing to be ashamed of in his latest performance. He simply found himself up against an inspired Nadal. An unforced error gave away the second of two break points Nadal earned on Youzhny’s serve in the first game of the match, but it was the last real mistake he would make for some time. While Nadal held serve easily, Youzhny struggled to hold for 2-1, coming out on the wrong end of a 22-shot rally which set the tone for the rest of the match—the Russian being forced to hit shot after shot which would have been winners against almost any other player, and still finding himself losing the point. Nadal earned three more break points at 2-2, taking the first as Youzhny’s backhand went long.
It was to Youzhny’s credit that he managed to keep the first-set score to a single break, making Nadal work for every point; with the exception of a couple of missed returns against Nadal’s second serve, it’s hard to see what he could have done better. Nadal was just too good: His serve was virtually unassailable, especially out wide; his footwork and court speed were at his explosive best; and he was relentlessly aggressive, keeping himself inside the baseline, taking and making every opportunity to get to the net. Nadal also hit his backhand with more force and aggression than we usually see from him, to devastating effect.
Youzhny, however, was not giving in. He almost injured himself stretching for impossible gets with Nadal serving at 0-1 in the second set, throwing everything at that game but earning a solitary break point. Nadal snuffed it out with a backhand winner, however, then found an ace and two big serves to hold for 1-1. Understandably, Youzhny’s head dropped and he lost his next two service games to find himself on the wrong side of a double break, 1-4 down.
Here, Nadal’s concentration wavered. He stopped using his backhand aggressively, started slicing off that side and retreated behind the baseline, allowing Youzhny to go for broke. The Russian obliged, taking a break back and pushing Nadal to 15-40 as the Spaniard attempted to serve out the match. Once again, attacking play enabled Nadal to escape; he served-and-volleyed for the first time in the match, then came up with two service winners and another sharp net play to take the match.
Youzhny, who completed his Ph.D in philosophy from the University of Moscow over the off-season, must attempt to be stoic about a painful loss. Meanwhile, Nadal’s competitors will have observed his performance today with trepidation.