Rafael Nadal and Caroline Garcia continue to rise with big fall wins

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Rafael Nadal beat Nick Kyrgios for a rare autumn title; Caroline Garcia topped the new WTA No. 1, Simona Halep. (AP)

“Very long games at the beginning and a good level of tennis,” Rafael Nadal said of the opening of his 6-2, 6-1 win over Nick Kyrgios in the China Open final. “I think after 30 minutes we were only 2-1. Very intense everything.”

In its early moments, Nadal-Kyrgios looked like it could end up being one of the matches of the year. After three games, I was having hopeful flashbacks to Kyrgios’ other classic from 2017, his three-tiebreaker loss to Roger Federer in Miami. That’s obviously not what happened on Sunday; looking back to those opening games, it’s easy to pinpoint two reasons why.

First, by that stage Kyrgios was already distracted by a bad call that had gone against him. He had hit a crosscourt backhand deep and close to the sideline, which was called out. Kyrgios, who was ready to finish the point on the next shot, challenged. When he saw that his shot had caught a millimeter or two of the line, he began a rant that didn’t let up until the second set, if at all, and that eventually earned him a point penalty from chair umpire Mo Lahyani. From the start, if things didn’t go his way, Kyrgios had a reason not to compete.

More important, though, was the fact that Nadal had two very good reasons to compete—not that he ever really needs them. No. 1, he had played poorly in his last match with Kyrgios, a 6-2, 7-5 loss in Cincinnati. No. 2, he wanted to stretch his lead over Roger Federer in the race for the year-end top ranking before Federer could start making up ground in Shanghai this week. With those two things in mind, Rafa set about grinding Kyrgios down, relentlessly working him from side to side.

Rafa’s serve, which his mixed up as well as he has all season, and his backhand, which he hit at sharp angles crosscourt, were especially effective. Kyrgios fought for five games; he’s never better than when he wants to prove that he can beat one of the Big 3. But by the fifth game, he was doing more muttering than shot-making, and the drop shot he flipped into the net at break point looked like a sign of surrender. Nadal won the next eight games to lead 6-2, 5-0.

“I think one of the best matches of the year,” Nadal said of his performance, which earned him his first China Open title since 2005, when he was 19.

“I don’t even remember that one,” Rafa said. “The feeling is probably better this year...Every title later in your career is more special than when you were younger.”

Nadal has never had much success in the fall. This is only the third post-US Open tournament he has ever won, and the first since his title in Tokyo in 2010. But where he once won matches and tournaments in six-month bursts, in 2017 he has smoothed out the dips in his play. Rafa played well on hard courts at the start of the season, dominated as usual on clay, and has now won 12 straight matches on hard courts again. This may not end up being Nadal’s finest season, but it could be his most consistent from start to finish.

In his win over Kyrgios, you could see why Rafa is still winning week in and week out at 31. Through three games, it was “very intense everything” from both players. But only one of them could stay that intense.

Up 2-1 in the second-set tiebreaker against Simona Halep on Sunday in Beijing, Caroline Garcia bent low for a forehand volley. From below net level, she stuck it solidly down the line. The ball didn’t go for a winner, nor was it a particularly spectacular shot. But it was good enough—and different enough—to inspire a roar of excitement from the enthusiastic crowd. “So,” you could almost hear them saying, “that’s what a textbook volley looks like.”

Garcia ended up winning that point, the tiebreaker, and the final over the world No. 1 Halep, 6-4, 7-6 (3).

Garcia’s volley was a good indicator of how she came away with back-to-back titles in Wuhan and Beijing over the last two weeks. The 23-year-old Garcia beat stronger, faster, higher-ranked opponents with a more complete game than they could offer, and a more decisive mindset than they could muster.

“The key was definitely to be aggressive and try to dominate the rallies,” Garcia said. “My serve was really an important thing because she’s a very good returner. I have to be aggressive, but I have to control myself sometimes.”

On Court Report, Tennis Channel looks back at Caroline Garcia's searing two-week stretch:

Garcia’s multi-talents as a shot-maker have always been apparent. At 17, she was touted as a future No. 1 by Andy Murray. But only now has she, as she said, learned to control those talents, and weave them together into a formidable whole.

Service winners down the T. Putaway inside-out forehands. Down-the-line backhand winners. Strong kick second serves. Textbook low volleys. Deep returns. Garcia had all of those things working, and working when she needed them. She and Halep each won 76 points, but Garcia won both sets.

Over the last two weeks, Garcia has beaten five seeded players: Angelique Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova, Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep. She saved a match point against Svitolina, and straight-setted two very different, very in-form players in Kvitova and Halep. It was enough to launch Garcia from No. 19 to No. 9 and put her in the Top 10 for the first time. Suddenly she has a chance to join the Top 8 in Singapore for the WTA Finals at the end of the month. And who would deny she deserves that spot?

“To be in the Top 10 means something because it’s a step in your career that you want to achieve,” Garcia said of joining the WTA’s elite. “It’s an important goal. It means you’re a part of the Top 10 best players in the world.”

Can Garcia join even more elite groups in the coming months and years? In 2015, Garbiñe Muguruza had a similar run of fall brilliance. Many of us wondered then if she would be the WTA’s next new major-title winner. While Muguruza has had her ups and downs since, she made good on that promise. Garcia has different strengths and weaknesses—she’s not as naturally powerful as Muguruza, but she has a more complete and classical game. More importantly, like Muguruza, Garcia can take control of rallies and win them on her own terms.

Is that a formula for success at a Slam? It will be interesting to watch Garcia try. If the spectators in Beijing are any indication, she may show tennis fans around the world a few shots they haven’t seen in a while, and which they may like seeing again.

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