You know that Rafael Nadal clay-court slump? It was fun while it lasted, right?
Today in the Madrid semifinals, Nadal put the naysayers and critics in the rear view mirror with a comprehensive beating of increasingly dangerous Roberta Bautista Agut. Nadal won it in a neat hour and three-quarters, 6-4, 6-3.
Bautista Agut was an interesting opponent for Nadal, because he’s been something of an ATP outsider; there are just so many gifted Spaniards the world is ready to embrace. Also, he’s never been inside the ATP Top 60 until this year — rapidly rising at age 26 now, he’s one of those anomalies on the ATP tour: A player who’s finding his game in mid-career.
And an interesting game it is, despite that ho-hum penchant for running around the backhand that is so in keeping with the gestalt of his generation and his nation. Reminiscent of that silken Indian former pro Ramesh Krishnan, Bautista Agut plays a surprisingly straight-up kind of game, his knees frequently lock and his lower body stiffens as he draws a bead on a placement he doesn’t expect to see retrieved. He gives the ball a serious crack, but unlike so many of his peers he does it with only minimal spin.
Bautista Agut also has excellent, soft hands and makes liberal use of the volley and drop shot. He may be the most complete player among all the Spanish. His backhand is solid. He’s a difficult guy to play because he’s also got great reaction time; he’s one of those players who seems to get to more balls than he should with plenty of time on his hands. And that makes his relatively flat groundstrokes that much more effective.
Of course, Nadal also traffics in taking time away, albeit in a different way — mostly by ratcheting up rallies slowly but surely, until he has his opponent doing wind sprints on the baseline. He can just out-athletes most of his rivals, and today was a good example of how explosiveness and muscle and trump quick reflexes and precision.
Nadal had three break points in the first game and managed a break, then held for 2-love. His lead lasted just three games, though, as Agut broke the top seed and world No. 1 in the sixth game, thanks to the kind of forehand error that has haunted Nadal in recent times.
But Nadal seems to have overcome that tremor on his most lethal side. In the very next game, he challenged his opponent and began to push him around effectively again. A forehand winner took Nadal to 30-40, but pulling out all the stops (including serving and volleying), Agut forced four deuces and survived a break point before Nadal finally took him down through the combination of an Agut backhand error to end a rally and a slick backhand pass in answer to a sharp Bautista Agut forehand volley.
From 4-3, Nadal served it out, converting his first set point with a magnificent forehand cross-court winner — hit while he was running full tilt the other way. It was Nadal’s 10th forehand winner of match (to just four by Agut) and his 17th winner (to six).
Bautista Agut’s resistance collapsed in the second set as Nadal capitalized on two breaks to build a four-love lead. But Nadal wasn’t destined to roll through this one without a few more uncomfortable moments. After Bautista Agut held for 1-4, he built a 0-40 lead against Nadal’s serve. Nadal fought off two of those break points, but he capitulated during the third one when he ended a rally by driving a backhand into the net.
After a hold brought Bautista Agut within a game at 3-4, Nadal played an excellent game to put the daylight back into the score. Serving at 3-5, Bautista Agut fell behind 15-30 and never recovered to deuce. Nadal won it, fittingly enough, with a pair of forehand winners.
Now David Ferrer, the man most instrumental in starting this “Nadal is slumping” business, could be standing in the way of Nadal putting that theme to rest — if the world No. 5 can beat Kei Nishikori in today's second semifinal.