As Rafael Nadal and Benoit Paire were warming up for their second-round match today in Madrid, a British commentator had this, roughly, to say about Paire's game: “His good tennis is very good; his bad tennis is truly awful.” In other words, it was hard to know what Rafa and the rest of us were going to get from the fickle-hitting Frenchman today. Paire has the talent to trouble Nadal, as he showed when he took him to a tiebreaker in the first set in Barcelona two weeks ago. But he also has the talent to blow the whole thing off and go down in a blaze of dumb drop shots.
What we got from Paire in his eventual 6-3, 6-4 defeat was mostly good, but not anywhere close to good enough. He stayed with Nadal until the middle of the first set, and late into the second set. He hit 24 winners against 25 errors and had Rafa on the run with those drop shots, which weren’t stupidly struck—few players are deft and deceptive enough to hit winners with that shot against Nadal, but Benoit made it happen half a dozen times today. Paire even had a very good chance at breaking Nadal’s serve at 2-1 in the second. On that point, he showed off his best attacking tennis, driving his way forward for what looked like an easy smash...only to shank the overhead just enough to give Nadal a chance at a pass. Rafa, as you might have guessed, didn’t miss. He went on to hold, and, again as you might have guessed, broke Paire at 4-4 for the match. It was the Frenchman’s forehand that let him down in the end. Nadal began directing his shots to that side more often in the second set, to the point where Paire was running around it in order to hit his backhand. But he couldn’t avoid the forehand forever, and at 4-4 he sailed two of them long to give up the decisive break.
As for Rafa, he mentioned in an interview this week that his knees still hurt, but other than a couple of drop shots that he couldn’t track down, he seemed to be moving well and playing with an extra dose of forward-marching determination—perhaps Novak Djokovic’s loss yesterday served as a reminder to him of every player’s vulnerability. Nadal has been practicing his serve heavily, and the work paid off today to the tune of 80 percent first serves in, and high winning percentages on both first and second balls. Once he understood that Paire was liable to try a drop shot at any moment, Nadal typically got the better of him in their cat and mouse rallies at the net. At 5-3 in the first Nadal won a point with a nicely measured re-drop of a Paire drop.
Nadal also smashed well and passed well. His first service break came with a running forehand pass from well outside the court, and the Frenchman was successful in just six of his 16 forays into the forecourt. Drops and smashes and passes aside, Nadal finally put the match away by sticking with a simple tactic: Get the ball to Paire’s weaker side, his forehand.
Next for Nadal: The winner between Mikhail Youzhny and Nicolas Almagro. Rafa is 9-4 against Youzhny, and 10-0 against Almagro. He’s never lost to either of them on clay.