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Stuck in the Middle With Rafa

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 /by
Rafael Nadal was eliminated in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for only the second time in a career. (AP)
Rafael Nadal was eliminated in the first round of a Grand Slam tournament for only the second time in a career. (AP)

“The game is changing a little bit,” Rafael Nadal said after losing to Fernando Verdasco, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in four hours and 41 minutes, in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday. “Everybody now tries to hit all the balls. There is no balls that you can prepare the point, no? Everybody hit the ball hard and try to go for winners in any position. Game become a little bit more crazy in this aspect.”

Crazy, indeed—that was the only way to describe Verdasco’s performance. I don’t think I’ve ever watched a match where I was left in head-shaking amazement so often. I don’t think I’ve ever blurted “Whoa!”—or a possibly profane equivalent—after so many winners. Verdasco, as Rafa said, really did try to hit all the balls. While half of them landed out, that was OK, because when they went in, they didn’t come back. How many times has a player hit 90 winners? How many times has a player committed 91 errors and still won? Verdasco did both.

“I just closed my eyes,” the underdog Spaniard joked afterward.

But he also made it clear that his strategy wasn’t completely insane.

“Today I was just like trying to be as aggressive as possible,” Verdasco said, “but also not like so crazy.”

Then he philosophized about the paper-thin line that separates the brilliant and the idiotic in tennis, a line that Verdasco has resided on for most of his career.

“Sometimes if you do what I did today," he said, "and you put all the balls outside, it’s like, ‘This guy’s crazy. He just hit everything and he miss.' But when they are coming in, it's unbelievable. The difference is just so little, and can be so big.”

Verdasco was content to rally through the first three sets, but by the middle of the fourth he knew his best chance at victory was to eliminate rallies altogether. Instead, he clocked winning forehands on the run. He drilled backhands up the line that sounded like cannon shots. He went for broke on returns, and when he connected, Nadal could hardly take a step before the ball was past him. Verdasco didn’t care about margin, he didn’t worry about spin, he didn’t waste time trying to give his shots shape. He hit them as hard and flat as he could.

Often cautious on his first serve because of his shaky second delivery, Verdasco threw that caution to the wind and pounded down 20 aces. He was two points from defeat at 5-6 in the fourth set, before firing off a string of winners to hold. He was down 0-2 in the fifth before reeling off six straight games. He ended it, appropriately, by annihilating a Nadal serve with a forehand winner. At that point, it seemed that Verdasco really could have closed his eyes and still found the corner. 

The most famous match of Verdasco’s career was a similar, five-set, five-hour loss to Nadal on the same court in the 2009 Aussie Open semifinals. It was the first and last time that Verdasco would reach a Grand Slam semi, but it ended bitterly, with a double fault on match point.

On Tuesday, Verdasco admitted that the '09 defeat has haunted him over the years, but his obsessive re-watching of the match—he says he has seen the whole thing “maybe 10 times”—helped him against Rafa yesterday.

“Why? I mean, to learn,” Verdasco said when asked why he had relived that painful moment so many times. “To see how I played, how I took the chances, how I didn’t.”

This time, he said, he was determined to take all of his chances, to hit the ball deep, and if he missed, to miss long rather than into the net. The tactic worked. Still, the '09 loss haunted him into the fifth set.

“The beginning of the fifth I was for a second thinking about the [2009] semifinals,” Verdasco joked. “I was like, ‘Please, I don’t want to lose, you know, with a double fault at 5-4, 30-40.'”

Instead, it was Nadal who committed a crushing double-fault at a crucial moment (at 6-6 in the first-set tiebreaker). It was Nadal who played with caution in the clutch. It was Nadal who couldn’t win the points he needed. It was Nadal who saw what looked like an inevitable victory slip from his grasp. 

From Verdasco’s perspective, this match will rightly be compared to the ’09 semifinal. But from Nadal’s perspective, it reminded me more of his last Grand Slam loss, to Fabio Fognini in a fifth set at the U.S. Open.

In both cases, the defeats were unprecedented: In New York, Nadal lost from two sets up for the first time in his career; on Tuesday he lost in the opening round in Melbourne for the first time. In both cases Nadal let a lead slip: He won the first two sets against Fognini, and he was up two sets to one against Verdasco. And in both cases Nadal’s game, rather than grinding his opponent down the way it once did, allowed that opponent to play the best tennis of his career.

By the fifth set, Fognini and Verdasco were, as we used to say, "treeing"—they had taken their games to new heights. You could say the same thing about Novak Djokovic in his last match against Rafa, in Doha earlier this month. In all three of those losses, Nadal’s opponents were in total control, and they hit at least twice as many winners as he did.

How did Nadal go from demoralizing his opponents to enabling them? The standards by which champions are measured are often infinitesimal, even invisible. Rafa’s forehands may land a little shorter these days, though that has always been an issue with him. He may be a half-step slower, though he certainly didn’t appear to be when he scrambled from side-to-side and back again to close out the second set. All of his shots, from his serve to his ground strokes, may have lost a few R.P.M.s and M.P.Hs. Yet even Rafa can’t put his finger on why the tables have turned against him so often recently.

“I don’t know a hundred percent the reason,” he said.

“In terms of being competitive, I was competitive. In terms of creating damage to the opponent with my forehand, I didn’t. I was hitting forehands, and he was able to keep hitting winners.”

Then Nadal looked ahead, to see how he might find an answer to this “crazy” new world of tennis he sees developing.

“I was practicing a bit different,” Rafa said of his off-season training, “trying to be more inside the court...The real thing is if I am not doing that, then I am dead. I can play defensive or offensive, but if I stay in the middle, finally, at the end of the day, you are not doing nothing.”

Is the sport evolving, as Rafa maintains? It always does, but the continued dominance of the rest of the Big 4 shows that it’s also staying the same. Yet the men's game does, for the time being, appear to be evolving past Nadal, and he can’t decide how to combat it. To me, as far as his shots go, it’s his serve, more than his forehand, that’s the biggest problem. No matter what his percentages are, he’s not doing enough damage with it. Fognini, Djokovic, and Verdasco were all able to tee off on returns; by the end, all three broke Rafa virtually at will.

Beyond tactics and technique, though, Nadal seems to have lost the old magic that once carried him, as if on a tightrope, safely across countless five-set thrillers. Rome in 2006, Wimbledon in 2008, the Australian Open in 2009, the French Open semifinals in 2014: Rafa had a sixth sense for survival, for finding the finish line before his opponent. Now that dynamic has been reversed: Fognini and Verdasco sprinted past him down the stretch, with hardly a second glance.

Whether it’s taking more risk himself, or moving up in the court, or varying his locations, or revamping his serve—or, perhaps, taking a page from Verdasco's book and re-watching a few of those epic wins from the past—Nadal will need to find a way to deal with the free-swingers who have come home to roost. For now, as Rafa himself says, he’s standing in the middle of the road, watching the winners fly by.

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