Rio de Janeiro: Nadal d. Dolgopolov

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How can you beat Rafael Nadal on clay? You probably need to play the match of your life—though as Pablo Andujar found out yesterday, even that may not be enough.

More specifically, you need to match Rafa’s uber consistency in some way, preferably with a shot that can hurt Nadal. Novak Djokovic, who has handed Nadal a lion’s share of his clay-court defeats (three, of just 21), did that with his two-handed backhand in 2011. Two years earlier, Robin Soderling did it with his forehand. On that fateful day at the French Open, the Swede pulverized any forehand opportunities he saw with giant swings, and most of those were too much for Nadal to handle.

What Djokovic and Soderling did was establish patterns to answer Nadal’s tried-and-true tactics on dirt. The Spaniard, after all, is the master of consistency, and so it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see him defeat Alexandr Dolgopolov, the master of inconsistency, 6-3, 7-6 (3), for the inaugural Rio Open title.

I label Dolgopolov that way with the utmost respect: He’s a master at changing speeds, creating angles, and giving his opponents all too much to think about with his wacky game. It was enough to beat David Ferrer, Nicolas Almagro, and Fabio Fognini—three clay-court studs—in Rio. But there are studs and there is a star, and Nadal’s mastery of the clay-court game was way too much for Dolgopolov to handle today.

Aside from three break points the Ukrainian earned when trailing 1-3 in the first set, it was a largely one-sided and uncompetitive final. Dolgopolov posed some unorthodox questions, but Nadal had most of the answers before the questions were finished. He hit out much more often with his forehand than he did in the semis, and his retrieving exhibitions were some of the best of the week—they needed to be against this particular opponent.

Dolgopolov, who like Andujar scored points with his flat, two-handed backhand, finished this match with many more winners than Nadal—at one point, it was 33 to 11. Then there were the numbers that really mattered, which for all the world appeared to be 6-3, 6-4, once Nadal served for the match and led 15-0. But out of nowhere, Nadal became the erratic player, and it was Dolgopolov who couldn’t miss.

Nearly automatic with his overheads, Nadal clipped the tape with one, allowing Dolgopolov to work his way back in the point, which he won. Then, at 30-30, Nadal dumped a meek forehand into net. And all the while, Dolgopolov’s shots singed the court and, for a few minutes, gave Nadal cause to worry. He even held serve with ease, forcing Nadal to hold at 5-6.

Nadal calmed the insurgence with a dominant performance in the ensuing tiebreaker; the form of both men reverted to the norm. An example: At 5-3, Nadal hit a fade-away, inside-out forehand return that saw the ball dive-bomb for a winner and the world No. 1 just inches away from the stands. It seemed an unorthodox shot for Nadal, until you remembered that he returned serve the exact same way in the tiebreaker’s first point. The master of consistency, yet again a master of clay.

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