Rafael Nadal and Stanislas Wawrinka had played three times in the last 18 months. Each time I had wondered: Is this the day when Stan, who had never won a set from Rafa, will finally make an inroad? But those three matches had all been played on clay, which made any success against Nadal a long shot. Today was different. This time, at the Shanghai Rolex Masters, Wawrinka had his first crack at Nadal on a hard court, and a quick hard court at that, in three years. Was this going to be Stan’s day?
The answer was: Almost. Wawrinka did everything he could; he threw serves, forehands, backhands, smashes and maybe a kitchen sink or two at Rafa over the course of a 1-hour, 13-minute first set. He held three set points and saved three others. He made just 44 percent of his first serves but still survived long enough to extend the tiebreaker to 10-10. Yet he lost his 23rd consecutive set to Nadal.
If you’re looking for a quick example of why Rafa is so preposterously tough on Stan, I’ll give you three.
With Nadal serving at 4-5 in the first set, Wawrinka won the first point on a running forehand volley. The crowd was with him, and the momentum seemed to be as well. But Rafa snuffed it out with four first serves. Two of them curled away from Wawrinka’s one-handed backhand; Nadal, with his lefty spin, is murder on all one-handers, but he’s especially good at defusing Stan’s. Against everyone else, it’s a weapon; against Rafa it’s a liability. Nadal didn’t just serve to Wawrinka’s backhand in that game, though. At 15-15, he surprised the Swiss by going into his forehand side. Nadal always seems to be a step, and a thought, ahead of Wawrinka.
The next time Nadal served, he went down set point. Wawrinka got the serve back this time, but Nadal wasted no time going on the attack with an inside-out forehand. It landed smack in the corner, a few inches from each line, and Wawrinka never had a chance to get into the point. That’s a shot you can hit when you’re 10-0 against someone.
A few minutes later, the two were all even at 5-5 in the tiebreaker. Wawrinka pounded a forehand within six inches of the baseline; for half a second, it looked as if the shot might win him the point. But Nadal made it there in time, and he didn’t give Wawrinka a sitter on the next ball. It proved to be one shot too many for Stan, as he sent his next backhand long. Nobody lives by the phrase “make your opponent hit one more ball” as devotedly as Nadal. And few, if any, players at the top of the game are as vulnerable to having to hit one more ball than Wawrinka.
Put all of that together and Rafa-Stan is a uniquely one-sided matchup, one that resulted in a 7-6 (10), 6-1 win for Nadal today, and which leaves him 11-0 in their career head to head. But let me finish with a bonus reason for this disparity, one that doesn’t involve Wawrinka at all. At 10-10 in the tiebreaker, Nadal noticed that Stan was a step or two—just a step or two—farther back in the court than normal. So he took that split-second opportunity and hit a shot he hadn’t played all day, a forehand drop. Wawrinka could only wave at it as Nadal went up 11-10; he closed out the set a minute later. That drop shot, at that moment, isn’t how you go 24-0 in sets against someone. It’s how you become No. 1 in the world.