Will Nadal lose a set this spring? Can clay bring out Pliskova’s best?

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Rafael Nadal won Barcelona for the 11th time; Karolina Pliskova won her 10th WTA title in her 20th career final, in Stuttgart. (AP/Getty)

Thirteen years after Rafael Nadal won his first French Open, we may finally have reached the logical conclusion of his dominance on clay. We’re not watching to see if anyone can beat him on the surface; the idea seems too far-fetched to contemplate at the moment. Instead, we’re watching to see if anyone can take a set from him this spring.

With his 6-2, 6-1 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nadal has now won a record 46 straight sets and 19 straight matches on clay, dating back to Rome last year. Sunday’s victory also gave him an equally ridiculous and almost certainly unsurpassable 11 titles in Barcelona. The only drama, or what passed for drama, during the week came in the second set of his quarterfinal against Martin Klizan, when Rafa had to save set points. Klizan had been the better player for the first nine games, and he deserved to push the match to a third set. But when it came time to close the set out, he tightened up the way most players would tighten up if they had match points on Nadal. That’s how momentous simply taking a set from him feels at the moment.

Match point, Nadal d. Klizan

Otherwise, everything went according to the well-worn plan for Rafa at his home—or close to home—event. He got better as he went along, wearing down a game David Goffin in the semis 6-4, 6-0, and never giving the 19-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, who had knocked off Dominic Thiem and Pablo Carreño Busta in fairly routine fashion over the previous two days, even a hint of hope.

To me, Nadal has always played his calmest and most efficient tennis in Barcelona. Maybe it’s the familiar surroundings; maybe it’s the momentum he’s built up during Monte Carlo; maybe it’s the slightly weaker field that he faces at an ATP 500 tournament. Whatever it is, Rafa never seems perturbed or less than purposeful here, and he comes up the casually spectacular shots to prove it. This year it was a no-look sky-hook overhead, which he snapped past a stunned Tsitsipas with a simple flick of his wrist.

“I’m very happy for the victory against a very difficult opponent,” Nadal said. “Tsitsipas has an amazing future...I enjoyed the whole week and had great support from the crowd.”

“To win 11 Monte Carlos and 11 Barcelonas is something I couldn’t imagine doing,” he continued. “I’m just enjoying every week and the fact I’m playing in a tournament I enjoy so much means a lot to me.”

This was a breakout week for Tsitsipas, who has begun to show a sturdier all-around game this spring; his lanky mix of speed and flash is well-suited for dirt. Still, whether it’s Thiem or Tsitsipas or Alexander Zverev, any talk of a future champion on this surface remains premature. There has never been a NextGen on clay since Nadal’s career began, and there won’t be one until it ends.

Unstrung: Nadal at the top of the food chain on clay

Clay, at first glance, would not seem to be Karolina Pliskova’s surface. Yes, she reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2017, but before Sunday she had won just one tournament on dirt, three years ago at the lower-level event in Prague. Pliskova’s flat, low-margin shots, strike-first attitude, and sometimes-casual footwork wouldn’t seem to be a winning recipe for this grinder’s paradise.

But watching her edge Coco Vandeweghe on Sunday, 7-6 (2), 6-4, I started to wonder if clay isn’t the perfect surface for Pliskova. Because she knows she needs to be more consistent and more patient, she is more consistent and more patient. Because she knows she can’t win points as easily or as quickly with outright winners, she doesn’t try for as many outright winners. Because she needs to use her feet to survive rallies, she’s more diligent with her footwork. The Stuttgart draw was jammed with most of the Top 10, yet Pliskova, who hadn’t won a tournament this year, and who had become something of an afterthought at the top of the tour despite reaching No. 1 last season, made her way through the field with the loss of just one set.

“I think it’s huge for me because I did some work [over the last month], but not always after you do some good work, you get rewarded immediately with a title,” Pliskova said. “I think it was a great week with a lot of tough matches, which is always important. I think it was a good start, but hopefully I can have some more victories on clay.”

Embed from Getty Images

If you needed to be reminded of how wide open the French Open women’s draw will be, the Stuttgart final provided the early proof; while Pliskova had won just one clay-court event, Vandeweghe hadn’t won any. But both of them showed how much a powerful serve and ground game can mean on dirt, provided you do the little things to get yourself in position for shots and stay in points.

This was the type of big-hitting, serve-dominated contest you would normally expect to see on grass. Those types of matches are typically decided by just a few points, and Pliskova won virtually all of them against Vandeweghe. Pliskova has always had the serve and the shot-making skills, and she has always liked fast courts because of it. But slowing down her game just a little bit, which is what clay forces her to do, may be just what she needs.

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