Sometimes the signs end up pointing in the the wrong direction.
Ferrer continued to be the better player through the first set on Wednesday. He started by playing inside the baseline and pounding his forehand into Nadal’s backhand. In the third game, Ferrer guessed right on a Rafa passing shot at the net for a volley winner and eventually broke. A few games later, with Nadal serving at 4-5, down set point, Ferrer guessed right again, ran down a Rafa volley, and hit a cross-court passing shot winner.
In the vast majority of their match-ups, Nadal has been the one who has out-anticipated Ferrer, the one who has come out on top in the cat-and-mouse points, as well as the crucial points. In Monte Carlo, though, Ferrer had turned that dynamic around, and he was doing it again in Paris early. If Ferrer, rather than, Rafa, was winning those up-for-grabs points, it looked highly possible that he was going to win this match as well.
Nadal must have realized that he was in a losing dynamic, too, because he made a determined and ultimately successful effort to change it at the start of the second set. He began playing closer to the baseline on his returns, and going all-out to run around and hit forehands. At 1-1, he broke with a backhand winner that painted the sideline. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet. With Nadal serving at 3-2, Ferrer came up with his own backhand winner down the line to reach 15-40.
Then Ferru hit the shots that doomed him, two regulation forehands that he sent long to bring Nadal back to deuce. Ferrer knew he had to press hard with his forehand, but there was a price, and he paid it with those two mistakes, as well as the 48 other errors he committed on the day. Nadal eventually held serve.
The match's last competitive moment came two games later, with Nadal serving at 4-3, 30-30. Again, Ferrer pushed him into his backhand corner, but this time Nadal went the extra mile—or couple of feet, anyway—into the alley to get a swing at a forehand. It was the right move, as he won the point with an inside-out strike to the opposite corner. A little later, with Rafa serving at 5-4, Ferrer made two more forehand mistakes, Nadal held at love, and the match was essentially over.
“I lost my concentration a little bit in the third set,” Ferrer said. “But in the fourth set he played good.”
It wasn’t hard to tell. Nadal bageled a disappointed Ferrer in the third, and, going through his rituals at turbo-speed to beat the fading evening light, almost did it again in the fourth. He broke Ferrer the last seven times he served, and turned a dogfight into a blowout. Nadal said he struggled with his backhand early, and he didn’t serve especially well, either, making just 62 percent of first balls. But he also didn’t appear to be hampered by his back, and he saved 11 of the 14 break points he faced in a 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1 victory.
By the end, the match had begun to remind me of the quarterfinal that Nadal won over Robin Soderling at Wimbledon in 2010. Both times, he faced a tough opponent; both times he got off to a slow start and lost the first set; both times he ended it by racing to a convincing 6-1 fourth-set finish, with his confidence restored. That year Rafa would go on to beat Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych in the semis and final without dropping a set.
Nadal will be hard-pressed to repeat that performance in Paris, especially if he faces Novak Djokovic in the final, and especially if he starts as slowly and serves as poorly as he did today. But, as he did at Wimbledon in 2010, he will face Murray in the semis here, on Friday.