Serving It Cold

Thursday, June 26, 2014 /by
Photos by Anita Aguilar
Photos by Anita Aguilar

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—“Seriously, I don’t play for revenges,” Rafael Nadal said after his 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-4 win over Lukas Rosol on Thursday. 

It’s not that I don’t believe Rafa, exactly. As a competitor, he’s too smart to let extraneous emotion get in his way or cloud his thought process on court. And as he likes to say, he already “tries his best in every moment" whenever he walks on court. What use could playing for revenge have for him?

But there was something special about this match, and this win. You only had to feel the tension that filled up the 15,000-seat Centre Court for the entirety of its two hours and 44 minutes. Fans in this stadium are famous for their murmur; it whirls around the bleachers, echoes off the roof overhang, and grows louder as a changeover progresses. When Rosol broke Rafa in the first set, the murmur began; when he broke him again, at love, in the second set, its volume doubled. If it had happened a third time, the nice fans of Wimbledon might have worked themselves all the way into a dull roar.

If that wasn’t enough to let you know this was an important match, you only had to hear the way Nadal finally broke the tension after Rosol’s final return flew long. Rafa raised his fist and let out a fierce cry of joy and relief, his second of this tournament. He had survived two brutal battles in his first two rounds, and he had found his feet and his game on grass again. 

“Very happy,” Nadal said afterward. “It was an important victory for me. To be in the third round here again after two, three years is very positive news, and I think I finished the match playing at a very high level.”

But would anyone blame Rafa if he took a little extra pleasure in coming back to beat the man who ended his Wimbledon, and his season, in 2012? The Czech was certainly a major roadblock. In fact, as I watched, I wondered whether any player has ever raised his game as drastically against one opponent, at one event, as Lukas Rosol does against Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. From the opening games, it was obvious that his win here two years ago was no fluke, and that even if Nadal had been completely healthy then, Rosol had the tools and the attitude to make it happen anyway. 

There are plenty of players who can take the racquet out of your hands with one shot, but for much of the first two sets today, Rosol was doing it with two. He finished with 17 aces and snapped innumerable returns of serve past Nadal. Rosol ended up with 59 winners, and they came with regularity from both wings. There’s something about Nadal’s shots on grass, the way they kick up into his strike zone, that agrees with the 6’5” Rosol.

“In the second set, he played unbelievable,” Nadal said. “He start to hit every ball full power, every serve serving unbelievable.”

Asked what the difference was between this match and their second-rounder in 2012, both players pointed, quite appropriately, to the end of the second-set tiebreaker. Rosol led 5-3, had two serves at 5-4, and had a set point at 6-5, yet lost it.

“In the first set I play really good,” Rosol said. “The second set was nothing bad from my side; the tiebreak was pretty 50/50....Every point was tough, for both of us. In the end, he was more lucky. I make a double fault on the last point. Was pretty windy from the back. But still, Rafa was playing really good.”

Nadal narrowed the crucial moments down even even farther.

“The difference maybe is one point,” Rafa said. “Maybe if I lose that set point in the second point, if that forehand down the line went out, maybe we will be here with a loss. But that’s the sport. That forehand was a perfect forehand for that moment.”

How about that forehand down the line? Nadal stepped back on a decent Rosol placement and wasted no time firing the ball into the corner. Just as good, but very different, was the shot he hit when he was down 4-5 in the tiebreaker. Rosol attacked, hit a forehand that clipped the net, and moved forward. Nadal, seeing him move, let the ball drop and hit a delicately low sidespin pass. Rosol tried to volley it up, but it caught the tape. 

Those two shots, the torqued forehand at 5-6, and the smart slice at 4-5, exemplified for me again the reasons why Nadal wins so many of these cliffhanger, could-go-either-way matches. The first showed his ability, which I think is unique in any player I’ve ever seen, to play more aggressively than he normally does when the match gets tight and he needs a point. Normally, we’re told to play to our strengths in these moments, but how may times does Nadal, a confirmed baseliner, end an important rally at the net, or with a forehand from the forecourt? 

You might say he’s getting out of his comfort zone in these situations, but with Rafa, it seems he’s finding his true strength—to play with aggression, even abandon. Toni Nadal has said that his nephew’s first instincts as a player when he was young were to be offensive. Those instincts seem to kick back in at the right times, especially when he’s had success on grass. (That also applies to his serve, which he transforms into a weapon on this surface, and which was crucial for him today.)

As for the low backhand pass at 4-5, this shot reminds me of a phrase common in the NBA. Players there like to talk about making “the right basketball play.” This means, roughly, doing what’s right for the team, rather than yourself, and playing the percentages, rather than going for glory. By that second definition, Nadal’s low passing shot was the right tennis play. 

Both of these instincts, to go for more when he’s down, and to make the right play when needed, kicked in again when he served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth. Nadal said he played extremely well over the last three sets, with “fantastic energy.” Yet he hadn’t been able to shake Rosol, to get up a second break on him, and he was still tight. At 30-30, Nadal smothered a nervous forehand into the net, and on his first match point, he hit a putaway forehand, a shot he very rarely misses, over the baseline. 

Still, Rafa survived. On the game’s first point, he hit a second serve into Rosol’s forehand; the Czech had been smacking it away for winners all day. This time, Nadal kicked the ball just a little wider than normal and Rosol, stretched too far, buried it in the net. A few minutes later, down break point, Nadal again belted a forehand into the corner, and followed it forward for a forehand putaway. He’d been challenged, and, as he likes to say, he’d found the solutions.

Nadal was close to ecstatic about his play afterward. He had hit 46 winners and made 11 errors, and made 79 percent of his first serves and hit 11 aces, including two huge ones at deuce in the final game.

In Paris, Rafa worked himself into his best form after losing the first set of his quarterfinal to David Ferrer. This was the same David Ferrer who had beaten him the last time they had played, in Monte Carlo. Today Nadal worked himself into fine form after losing the first set to Lukas Rosol. This was the same Lukas Rosol who had beaten the last time they played at Wimbledon. Maybe "revenges" do have their uses, after all.

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