The year was new, but the story was old. That’s the quickest way to describe Rafael Nadal’s 7-5, 6-4 win over Ernests Gulbis today in Doha. It happened on the second evening of 2014, but it could have been played in any season going back to 2008, when these two players first met. For the seventh time in seven matches, Nadal survived a Gulbissean onslaught of brilliant shots, bone-headed choices, and ball-abuse warnings. The only difference is that, for just the second time, Rafa and Ernie got it all over with in straight sets.
Last March, after beating Gulbis in three in Indian Wells, Nadal said, “To play against a player like Ernests, the right thing to do, in my opinion, is play against his backhand and change to his forehand quick, no?” But that’s not how Nadal, the newly minted poker pro, went about his business today. For much of the match, he used the opposite tactic, working Gulbis’s forehand over before going quickly to the open court on the backhand side. Nadal also looked to move forward a little more on important points, eventually winning 11 of 15 up there. This wasn’t Rafa at his best or most freewheeling, which shouldn't be unexpected on January 2nd. But from a focus perspective, Nadal appeared to be in mid-season form already. Down 1-3 in the second, he held off four game points to break. Two games later, he put two passing shots on the line that not only broke Ernie’s serve again, but his mind as well.
As for Gulbis, the match resided, as it always does when he plays Rafa, on his racquet. He hit 35 winners and made 38 errors, while Nadal hit 16 and 14, respectively. When Gulbis made a first serve or put a deep return into the court, the points were typically his. But once again, he didn't have the psychological stamina to stay with Nadal the whole way. Gulbis needs a mental break or two over the course of a match, and unless your name is Novak Djokovic, mental breaks spell doom against Nadal. A case in point was Gulbis’s service game at 3-1 in the second. He was up 40-15 and had four chances to end it, but Nadal never caved. The key point of the game, and the set, came at deuce, when Gulbis drilled a putaway forehand right back to Nadal and eventually lost the point. Ernie pounded, but he couldn't pound long enough to make the wall fall down.
Along with his efficient baseline play, Nadal made 81 percent of his first serves, and he had Gulbis guessing to the end. On match point, Rafa hit a rare second serve down the T in the ad court; it fooled Gulbis and Nadal won the point easily. “Go quick to his forehand”: Rafa, who always seems to hold the right cards when he needs them, came back to his old strategy just in time.