Monday Night Countdown

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Photo by Anita Aguilar

NEW YORK—How can a tennis player tell when expectations for him are low? Here’s one sign: A reporter in your post-match press conference praises you for breaking your opponent's serve once over the course of three sets.

That’s what happened to Richard Gasquet at the U.S. Open today after his match against No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal. The writer’s praise wasn’t quite as ridiculous or insulting as it may have sounded at first. No one, after all, had broken Rafa at the Open before Gasquet. To the Frenchman’s credit, he didn’t agree that this achievement was anything of which to be especially proud. 

“I don’t know if it’s a victory to win his serve,” Gasquet said with a smile. “I’m not sure about that. I think it’s better to win one set or more.”

A set. Now that would have been a major achievement, considering that Gasquet hadn’t won one against Rafa in five years. But it wasn't to be.

With such a lopsided head-to-head history between the two players, it wasn’t surprising that there was very little energy inside Ashe Stadium during Nadal’s eventual, inevitable 6-3, 7-6 (1), 6-2 win. It also didn’t help that the other two semifinalists, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, had just staged a four-hour, knock down-drag out five-setter that left the audience drained and not quite ready for more. Normally it takes three games for fans to begin streaming back in for a new match; today most people didn’t make it back to their seats until the start of the second set. 

Rafa himself, while he warmed-up with his usual bug-eyed fervor, seemed to feel a similar lack of urgency in the early going. He smothered a few easy forehands and faced a break point in his first service game. And once he broke Gasquet a game later, he didn’t aggressively try to nail down a second break. Urgency did come for Nadal in the second set, out of necessity. Gasquet, approaching the net whenever possible, held two break points for 5-3. But Nadal answered with two unreturnable serves.

“I had a few games that I didn’t play that well,” Rafa said, “and I was lucky in the second set at 4-3, 15-40, one ace, and one good serve to the body. Very important that I come back, and then I think I played a great tiebreak. Win the second set, I don’t say the day is done, but it is a big advantage.”

Nadal was especially good at net, where he won 22 of 28 points. There’s been some talk among commentators lately that Rafa may be the best volleyer on tour. He’s not, yet he rarely loses a point up there. That’s because he has great hands, and, more important, he transfers the secret of every good pool player—never leave yourself a tough shot—over to tennis.

The 2013 Open had been, for a few days at least, the one-handed backhand Slam. Four of the eight men to reach the quarterfinals, and two of the four to make the semis, used the allegedly out-of-date stroke. And none of them were named Roger Federer. 

Now they’re all gone. Gasquet was the last, and his exit showed why even a shot as brilliant as his one-hander can be a liability today. Nadal had no trouble spinning his first serve in around 105 M.P.H., high to Gasquet’s backhand side, and getting a short, floaty return. He had almost as little doing the same thing with his forehand during rallies. As he does with Roger Federer, but more so, Nadal never allows the artist in Gasquet to wield his brush. By the time the Frenchman loops that long backhand swing around, the ball is either over his head, or he has backed up 10 feet behind the baseline. 

So to the surprise of no one, No. 2 Nadal moves on to face No. 1 Djokovic. A U.S. Open that has mostly been a dud now has two chances to produce a last-second explosion—the No. 1 and 2 women’s seeds, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, will also face off for the title. On the men’s side, this will be the third time in four years that Rafa and Nole have reached the title match together; they split the first two, in 2010 and 2011, each time in four exhausting sets. It will also mark the 37th time they’ve played as pros. That’s a recent men’s record for a rivalry, and neither player is over 27 years old yet. Still, it's unlikely that they'll approach the co-longevity of Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. The Aussie barnstormers played 143 times.

Today Rafa admitted, with a laugh, that he would “prefer to play another one”—i.e., anyone but Nole—in a Grand Slam final. “At the end,” Nadal said, “we have to be honest, no? We don’t have to be stupid."

Nadal said he was looking forward to the battle—"always we play very exciting matches”—though with some degree of trepidation about the toll it may take.

“Is good if both of us,"Nadal said, “we are playing at a very good level so the match becomes great because we play long rallies, we bring our game to the limit, and becomes very difficult match for both of us.

“Hopefully I hope to be ready for that. I don’t know. I gonna try. I need to keep playing aggressive and play a very, very good match. Only like this I gonna have chances.”

As Rafa says, matches between Nadal and Djokovic are exciting, exhausting, dramatic—I thought the last one, in Montreal, was up with their very best, especially in terms of quality. It’s a particularly compelling rivalry because it’s one of the few that has gone back and forth over the years. One player dominates for a time, and the other answers by upping his game or changing the dynamic. In 2011 and 2012, Djokovic won seven straight over Nadal; since then, Rafa has won five of six.

Who is going to up his game on Monday? Record-wise, Rafa is in the driver’s seat right now, though four of those five wins in the last year came on clay. He has been unstoppable on hard courts this season, it’s true, and his last win over Nole was on that surface. (In a true sign of the times comment, Gasquet said today that Rafa was "the best player, especially on hard.") Nadal also won’t have to recover from a grueling five-setter, the way Djokovic will.

Despite all of that, though, I still think Rafa must play his best to win this match, and he seems to think so as well. I picked Nole at the start of the tournament, and I’ll stick with him at the end. Whoever wins, Rafole is probably the only possible match-up that could still make this an Open to remember.

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