We’ve all seen that certain points, at not obviously crucial times, can have an outsized impact on the outcome of a match. We had one such point in today’s final in Madrid, in which a spectacularly determined and focused Rafael Nadal collected his fifth win in seven finals this year—this one his 23rd Masters title—with a convincing 6-3, 6-4, one-hour and 11-minute demolition of a game Stanislas Wawrinka.
We’ll get to that certain point later, because at the start of the match it seemed unlikely that there would be anything even remotely like an intriguing, never mind critical, juncture in this one. By the time the first game ended, Nadal had savored six break points—six more than Wawrinka would see on this day—and owned a 1-0 lead. And when he went out and held the next game and love and broke again, it looked like we were in for a replay of the WTA final of a few hours earlier. In some ways, we were—even though that match was a few minutes longer than this one.
Give Wawrinka credit, though—even in that rough early going, he stepped in and took his cuts. He seemed fully aware that to rally with Nadal and wait for opportunities was the equivalent of suicide. And while Wawrinka isn’t a nimble fellow, he’s got great power and a kind of heft, a bigness of game, that makes him a pleasure to watch. Time and again, he pulled the trigger on that roundhouse backhand; often, he threw his significant body weight into the inside-out forehand.
Errors? Sure, he made them. So what? It sure beat allowing yourself to get shot to tiny pieces by Nadal’s relentless consistency.
We also have to remember that Wawrinka had very little left in his tank, emotionally or physically. This was his ninth match in 10 days—he won the title on Oeiras last week, and survived demanding three-setters yesterday and the day before. But despite the long odds of vanquishing Nadal on his beloved clay in front of his adoring home crowd, Wawrinka made more of a match of it than the score suggests.
After a good hold for 4-1 in the first set, Wawrinka held his own—not least because he refused to play Nadal’s patient game, until Rafa served out the set.
That “certain point” I mentioned above played out in the fourth game of the second set, with Wawrinka showing a surprising ability to catch a second, third, and even fourth wind, despite everything. He had played an extremely strong hold game for 2-1 in the second set. Nadal then jumped to a 40-love lead with an ace—the 15th first-serve point he’d won in 16 tries—but he couldn’t keep Wawrinka from clawing his way back to deuce.
During the ensuing point, Nadal was drawn in to the net where Wawrinka, stationed right at the center of the court, fired three consecutive bullets right at Rafa’s face. The second of them was hit so hard that all Nadal could do in reaction was duck below the net while holding his racquet above it. Surprisingly, the ball caromed back, and Wawrinka drove his next passing shot attempt way long.
There followed the familiar sight of Nadal bellowing “Vamos,” and throwing the triumphal uppercut while he kicks up his knee like a Las Vegas showgirl. He returned to the baseline and promptly fired an ace to win the game. When he bolted to a love-40 lead against Wawrinka's serve in the next game, it seemed like things would end ugly. Yet Wawrinka found a way to blast his way out of trouble and won the next five points running, taking the game with a prodigious inside-out forehand winner.
Nadal held the next game at love, after which Wawrinka finally yielded to fate. At 15-all, he made a backhand error, then hit back-to-back double faults to surrender the critical break for 3-4. From there, Nadal bulled his way through his next two service games with the loss of but one point, and ended the match when he forced Wawrinka into making a running backhand error.
So that “certain point” turned out not to have a significant immediate impact; while it was a tribute to Wawrinka’s doggedness and determination, it served only to delay the inevitable.
Stat of the Match: Wawrinka never had a break point.