“It’s all about confidence.”
If you’ve listened to a tennis player speak for more than a minute in your life, you’ve probably heard a variant of that sentence. Confidence is the Holy Grail and the ever-elusive X factor in this individual sport. It’s also the great democratic leveler. Even the most vaunted and hardened champions, those who have scaled the game’s summits over and over again, can lose their self-belief in a matter of minutes, and not find it again for months or even years.
As we saw this weekend in Madrid, confidence works differently for different players. Simona Halep and Rafael Nadal have each struggled, sometimes mightily, to find it and keep it over the last three years. But by the end of the week at the Caja Magica, as they survived the stiffest of challenges from their final-round opponents and completed their title runs, the Spaniard and the Romanian were true believers in themselves again.
With Halep, confidence can wax and wane from one set to the next. For a Top Tenner, she can lose belief quickly; when one thing goes wrong, she seems to think everything is destined to go wrong. Her perfectionist’s nature, as well as her size—she’s a smaller player constantly trying to fend off more powerful foes—seem to contribute to this fatalistic mentality. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to see when it happens. Halep begins to play blindly; she grabs the balls and steps to the line as quickly as possible—better to get whatever is about to happen over with as soon as possible.
Halep had been to the Madrid final twice before, and she won the tournament last year, but that wasn’t enough to make her believe she was going to do it again when the week started. In her second match, she fell behind 2-5 in the third set to Roberta Vinci. When her coach, Darren Cahill, came out to give her a pep talk, Halep stared blankly in front of her, as if she couldn’t quite make herself buy what he was selling.
The dirty secret about confidence in tennis is that sometimes it takes an opponent showing less of it to make you believe that you have more of it again. Vinci threw away a game at 5-3 and couldn’t close Halep out at 5-4. Soon the Romanian was belting forehand winners and doing her trademark whirling fist-pump, as if she never had a doubt in her life. Fortified by that win, and believing again that the worst isn’t always bound to happen, Halep won another close three-setter, over Sam Stosur, soared past Coco Vandeweghe and Anastasija Sevastova, and survived a very stubborn Kristina Mladenovic in the final.
Even after a week’s worth of wins, Halep’s confidence came and went again in the title match. She was annoyed, she admitted, by how many risky winners Maldenovic was able to pull off—“Many lines. C’mon,” she said. And when the Frenchwoman, who has been the WTA’s most pleasant surprise of 2017, refused to go away, Halep grew so frustrated that she kicked her racquet across the court, where it glanced off a ball boy’s leg; she was lucky not to be defaulted. Instead of rushing herself to a defeat, though, Halep settled down, worked the points and ground Mladenovic down.
The win was a significant milestone: It was the first time Halep had completed a title defense, and it leaves her, for the moment, at the top of the WTA’s short list of French Open favorites.
“Today I showed it’s a new Simo,” Halep told WTATennis.com after the match. “…That I don’t give up anymore, even if I lose a close second set.”
Have all of Simo’s old problems suddenly been solved? Probably not; that’s not how confidence works. But with her speed, her flowing game, her ability to hit winners in all directions and that whirling fist-pump, there are few players more fun to watch than Halep when she’s successfully surfing the perilous waves of self-belief.
Nadal’s brand of confidence is more deeply rooted than Halep’s, and less dependent on the exigencies of the moment. How could it not be? He has won 14 more Grand Slam titles, and unlike Halep he’s a player who can impose his physical will on just about any opponent. Rather than changing with each set, Rafa’s belief in his game tends to go in three- or four-month cycles.
With his hard-earned win over Dominic Thiem on Sunday—the straight-set scoreline hardly did justice to this baseline tug of war—Nadal reached the peak of his best cycle of play in three years. He has won 15 straight matches and three straight tournaments, in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid. Rafa, of course, has traditionally started his dominant streaks during the clay swing, but he has been building up to this one since January, when he reached his first major final since 2014 at the Australian Open.
Still, the turnaround in his game and mentality has been startling. Was it just nine months ago, at the U.S. Open, that he couldn’t finish off Lucas Pouille in a fifth set? At the time, I wondered if the 30-year-old Rafa was going to go the way of Lleyton Hewitt as he aged.
The Aussie had been one of the world’s steeliest competitors in his early 20s, but by the time he reached his 30s he had gotten into the distressing habit of playing just well enough to lose. He could make the comeback, he could take a match five sets and he could even take the lead, but he couldn’t close the deal. In 2015 and 2016, that was Rafa’s fate as well. He worked hard, played good tennis and even improved his backhand, but the big wins didn’t come. Had all the years of playing the stoic and the realist, of telling himself that “losing is part of the sport,” become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Like Hewitt, had he found out that fighting was not the same as winning?
Nadal, like Halep in Madrid, needed a little help to believe that his good play wouldn’t always be in vain. It came against Alexander Zverev at the Australian Open. Nadal won their five-set encounter when Zverev lost his edge physically; from there, Rafa was off to the races, and to the final. On hard courts this spring he couldn’t leap that final hurdle; he lost two more finals, in Acapulco and Miami. But as it always does for him, clay solved any lingering confidence issues for Nadal.
The difference from last year’s U.S. Open to today was best illustrated in the final games of Nadal’s semifinal, with Novak Djokovic, and his final with Thiem.
Rafa admitted to being nervous trying to close out Djokovic for the first time in three years, and the concrete-elbow forehand he sent long on his second match point showed it. This time, though, the work he had done during those three years wasn’t for naught. When his strength— his forehand—failed him, he used his improved serve and backhand to get him out of that last game and over the hump against Djokovic.
The same was true against Thiem. Nadal had squandered two match points at 5-3 in the second set, and he nervously went down 15-40 when he served for the title at 5-4. Again it was Nadal’s resourcefulness that made the difference. The last 10 minutes of the match, in which Rafa saved four break points and Thiem saved two match points, was a master class in varied all-court tennis. Nadal won with precision serves and drop shots, with go-for-broke forehands and backhands down the line, and a winning volley finished it. Instead of playing just well enough to lose, he had found a way—many ways—to win.
“Today is a day to be satisfied,” Nadal said, “to be happy and to have this trophy. This is a very emotional period of the season. I really enjoy all these tournaments. I just try to go for all of them.”
Like his rival, Roger Federer, Nadal has found new reserves in his game in 2017 as he approaches his 31st birthday. He won Madrid on the strength of his serve, his backhand and his assortment of shots.
It’s always a pleasure to watch a confident Simona Halep, and the same is true for Rafael Nadal. There’s pleasure in watching his game at its best, watching him work his way out of jams and watching how much joy it still brings him to win tournaments he has won many times before. When his last volley against Thiem dropped in for a winner on Sunday, he fell to his knees as if he had won a Grand Slam title and an Olympic gold medal all at once. Nadal’s relentless realism means he knows that losses are normal, but it also means he knows when to celebrate. And he also knows that, among other things, confidence is hard work, and this was a job well done.
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