We expected a lot from the third-round match between Rafael Nadal and Jerzy Janowicz in Montreal today, and we weren't disappointed. The scores of Nadal’s 7-6 (6), 6-4 win may sound pretty straightforward, but those two sets, and the extreme contrasts in the players' styles and personalities, combined to give us a little bit of everything.
First, there were some intriguing tactics from Nadal, who is in Canada with his so-called “B-team” of coaches, led by Francisco Roig, and without the leader of the A-team, his uncle Toni. Today Rafa surprised a lot of people by standing close to the baseline to return the 6'8" Janowicz’s serve, which routinely gets into the 130s on first deliveries, and kicks up over opponents’ heads on the second. The strategy worked as well as could be expected. Nadal was able to break Janowicz three times—one of them came when Jerzy served for the first set at 6-5; another came at 4-4 in the second. Nadal also made an adjustment on his own serve. Instead of directing the majority of them at Janowicz’s backhand, as he does against most right-handers, he aimed the ball at Jerzy's right hip. Janowicz, whose forehand is his more erratic side, could never find a groove with the shot.
As for the Pole, his tactics were more predictable—bomb the serve and try to finish points with the drop shot whenever possible. He did that effectively through much of the first set; his drop was certainly more consistent than his forehand, and he fooled Nadal with it. But as is often the case, Janowicz went to the well a few times too often. Or, at least, one time too often. Down set point at 6-7 in the first-set tiebreaker, Janowicz telegraphed a backhand drop shot. Now, when it mattered, Rafa wasn’t fooled. He caught up to the ball and won the set with a backhand overhead on the next shot.
Janowicz, with his height, his serve, and his excellent two-handed backhand, is the type of player who gives Nadal fits. And he did that today, as he forced Nadal to stage two major comebacks, from 2-5 down in the first-set tiebreaker, and 0-3 down in the second set. Along the way, Jerzy dictated the action, made several fine plays at the net on crucial points, and showed no fear of his more famous opponent. But he wasn’t ready to finish the job, and that became clear in the biggest moments. Serving at 6-5 in the first set, 30-30, Janowicz drilled a fairly easy overhead into the net. A few minutes later, serving 5-4 in the first-set breaker, with the set on his racquet, Janowicz elected to hit one of his slowest first serves of the day. Nadal won the point. Finally, serving at 3-1 in the second, Jerzy double-faulted to hand the break, and the momentum, back to Nadal for the last time. It was one of nine double-faults for Janowicz on the day.
As for Rafa, he proved again that “match toughness” is an overrated concept, at least when it comes to the world’s best. This was his second singles match in five weeks, yet he had the answers when he needed them against the most dangerous of opponents. This was especially true when he fell behind 0-3 in the second set. At that stage, Janowicz was playing his freest and best tennis of the match. When Nadal went down a break point in that game, a third set appeared unavoidable. Yet Nadal avoided it. “Step by step,” is how he describes his career right now, and the first step was not to go down a double break. He came up with two service winners to hold, and a few minutes later the momentum had swung back in his direction.
Hopefully, this is the start of a new rivalry for the sport; the still-maturing, still-volatile Janowicz should be more prepared to finish what he starts next time. As for Rafa, he stays undefeated on his hated hard courts in 2013, and moves on to play Marinko Matosevic in the quarterfinals.