There may not be a sure-fire way to beat Rafael Nadal, but there is a type of player who can do it, and Ernests Gulbis, whatever his other flaws may be, fits the bill. The irascible, mercurial, and sometimes lackadaisical Latvian is tall enough to take Nadal’s high-bouncing topspin in his strike zone. He can hit the ball on the rise with his two-handed backhand. He can power ungettable shots from the baseline. And he has a serve that can bail him out of trouble. Gulbis shares many of these traits with other past Rafa-beaters such as Robin Soderling, James Blake, Tomas Berdych, Lukas Rosol, and Novak Djokovic. It’s no accident that Gulbis had taken a set from Nadal in four of their previous five matches, including one on clay in Rome three years ago.
Today the two were back on that same red Roman dirt, and before the stands were full Gulbis had another set in hand, 6-1. There was magic in his racquet for those 30-odd minutes, as he belted backhands that made Nadal look like he was standing still. Rafa was pushed to the far reaches of the court by the pace of Gulbis’s 130-M.P.H. serves and 100-M.P.H. forehands. Gulbis had a point to hand Nadal his first bagel set loss on clay in nearly six years, but he ended up having to wait a game to close it out. That one game, though, was enough for some of the magic to leak out of Ernests’ wand. Shots that had gone for winners began to find the tape and the alley, and in the end he needed two aces to secure the hold.
Nadal dug in and tried, with intermittent success, to move forward in the second set. He also tried to hit the ball deeper and higher to his opponent’s backhand. But Gulbis, despite his best efforts to undermine himself—he can find trouble on even his best days—didn’t go away. At 3-4, it looked as if he had blown the set when he hit a too-casual overhead wide, stopped in the middle of one point, and almost fell down during another. In the next game, though, with Nadal serving for the set, Gulbis began firing backhands to the corners again, and broke with a net-cord return winner.
But Nadal wasn’t rattled by the Gulbis barrage, or that last lucky shot. Rafa came back with a level-headed love hold for 6-5, and then made the most important shot of his afternoon. Serving at 15-30, Gulbis hit yet another backhand bomb at a sharp cross-court angle. It looked unreachable, until Nadal reached it with a long sideways slide and flicked it back from his shoetops to keep the rally alive. A few seconds later, Gulbis netted a drop shot to go down 15-40. A minute or so after that, the set was Nadal’s. It was a mostly defensive performance today from Rafa—he would finish with just 13 winners to Gulbis’s 59—so it makes sense that his most crucial shot of that set was a defensive gem. He gave Gulbis one more chance to implode, and it was enough.
The third set went much the same way. Nadal broke for a 4-2 lead, but Gulbis again proved surprisingly resilient and broke back with one more screaming backhand winner. A little later, serving at 4-5, 15-40, Gulbis saved two match points, one with a service winner and another with a forehand volley that he hit with a broken string. But it was in that same game that Nadal came up with his most important combination of shots of the third set. On the first point, he lofted a backhand lob over Gulbis that won him the point. At 15-30, he pushed Gulbis back with a return and followed it with a rare forehand winner, and at deuce, after squandering those two match points, he came up with another strong forehand to force an error. Like anything else in tennis, it's not how many great shots you hit, it's when you hit them.
Once Gulbis missed a forehand wide on the match point, clay-court order had been restored, and Nadal had an unpredictably predictable 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 win. But it had taken longer than even the most hopeful Gulbis fan might have expected. If Ernests isn’t yet the type of player who can beat Nadal, he’s certainly one who can scare him. But it’s Rafa who moves on, to a very different, but potentially just as difficult, quarterfinal tomorrow against David Ferrer.