Okay, I’ve been waiting to use this line ever since Alexandr Dolgopolov cracked the Top 100: Every Dog Has His Day. Cue the rim-shot, and now let’s get down to business.
Any ATP pro can vouch that you just don’t beat Rafael Nadal by playing prudent, conservative tennis. Some of the more accomplished players will inform you that the way to beat Nadal is to take the game to him, to smother or force him, to take away his time. And in truth, every once in a while one or another of those aggressive strategies has worked, but more often than not the attempt is relegated to the “nice idea, didn’t work” file.
But tonight, Dolgopolov showed that there’s another layer to the onion, a level beyond mere “aggressive” or “attacking” play. There’s his specialty, which we can just call “reckless abandon.”
And that was good enough to earn The Dog a resounding upset at Indian Wells, as he knocked out the world No. 1, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5). It was just Dolgopolov’s second win on hard courts over a Top 10 player, but it was a doozy.
Some Rafa fans will say they had seen something like this coming, but they would be trying to bend the truth to fit a convenient narrative—one in which Nadal’s back problems are largely to blame for what happened tonight. But it wasn’t Nadal’s back that failed tonight, at least not on the visible evidence. It was, ultimately, his nerve. But then, that’s precisely the kind of thing that can happen when you’re tangling with a guy who’s crazy and don’t care about nothin’.
And it will be easy for some to write off Dolgopolov as just a wild child, a ball-basher extraordinaire who happened to have a career night. That isn’t exactly true, or at any rate it doesn’t tell the entire story.
For one thing, it isn’t like anybody can play with as insane a disregard for the percentages as Dolgopolov; that’s a special gift. For another, most players would look downright idiotic if they attempted to play with reckless abandon. Dolgopolov may not be a Grand Slam champion, or even a Top 20 performer. But he’s an exceptional, radical talent.
And there is this: Dolgopolov all but handed Nadal the match on a silver platter late in the third set, but Nadal uncharacteristically fumbled and dropped it.
Dolgopolov staked out his mental turf early on. He allowed a break in the first game but broke right back with a blazing backhand winner. By the middle of the third game, he had burned through all three of his Hawk-Eye challenges, more or less frittering them away at absurd times, grinning all the while. He whaled on the ball, oblivious to whether it fell in or out, which is exactly the attitude you need to take if you have any hope of seeing those outrageous dream-bombs fall inside the lines.
The rallies were furious. It’s one thing when Nadal fails to keep pace in a rally because of the angles his opponent is creating; it’s quite another to witness him flat-footed and ineffective because of the pace of the rally. The first service hold was recorded by Dolgopolov in the fifth game of the first set. After two more games went on serve, Dolgopolov broke Nadal after two deuces to take a 5-3 lead.
In the next game, Dolgopolov survived two break points and four deuces. He reached his second set point when he ended a warp-speed rally with a dazzling, cross-court backhand volley winner, and then forced a Nadal backhand error when he followed his serve in to the net. 6-3, Dolgopolov.
The men held serve five times to start the second set. It seemed that Dolgopolov had peaked as his groundstrokes began to fall short and unforced errors began to creep into his game. He also backed off a little, which was hardly surprising. How long can a player sustain reckless abandon? Longer than we imagined, it turned out.
But Dolgopolov was broken for 2-4, and Nadal went on to serve out the set without further incident.
In the third set, Dolgopolov once again cranked up the pace. He was rewarded with a break for 4-2, after which he held to find himself in position to break Nadal for the match. Nadal played an excellent game, though, to hold for 3-5.
Serving for the match in the next game, Dolgopolov choked, and quite spectacularly. He lost four consecutive points, ending with a double fault. When Nadal went on to hold the next game without the loss of a point, it seemed almost certain that he would close out Dolgopolov. But this Dog was pure mastiff. He gathered himself and played an excellent game to hold, and after a Nadal hold they played the decisive tiebreaker.
The outstanding feature of the tiebreaker was Nadal’s inability to assert his superiority after Dolgopolov lost the first point with a wild backhand volley. Nadal lost the next point to give the mini-break right back, after which all was quiet until Dolgopolov, down 3-4, took his next two serves.
Dolgopolov had struggled with his first serve all night—he put just 40 percent of his first serves into play for the match As Jim Courier noted in the commentary booth, when was last time someone serving under 50 percent beat Nadal? But here he unloaded two beauties, both un-returned to the forehand side. That left Dolgopolov in charge, 5-4, with Nadal to serve two.
A crafty serve to Dolgopolov’s body got Nadal to 5-all, but then Nadal took a Dolgopolov service return and nervously drove his forehand approach shot long. That gave Dolgopolov match point. After an apparent ace was over-turned by a Nadal challenge, Dolgopolov won it when he ended the last furious, sizzling rally of the match with an inside-out forehand that Rafa just couldn’t handle.