Summing up what makes Rafael Nadal the King of Clay in one game

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Rafael Nadal dropped just four games to Guido Pella in the second round. (Anita Aguilar)

PARIS—Toni Nadal told his nephew Rafa that the key to being successful at tennis was enduring more than your opponent—getting one more ball, running one more meter, hitting one more winner, staying upright for one more minute. As a pro, Rafa would take that idea and apply his own, more severe word to it: for him, winning has always meant “suffering” more than the guy on the other side of the net.

One look at the scores of Nadal’s 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 blowout over Guido Pella at Roland Garros might lead you to believe that Rafa did very little suffering on Thursday afternoon. He won 94 points to Pella’s 58, hit 37 winners to Pella’s 15 and won the last two sets in little more than an hour. The victory left Rafa’s career French Open record at 81-2, which meant that it was about as predictable as any Grand Slam contest ever played.

“I played a solid match, and it’s true that when the match, during the match I improved the level,” Nadal said. “So in general terms, I have to be happy, no? It’s of course great result is 6-2, 6-1, 6-1. Is not possible without playing well.”

Match point of Nadal's win over Pella:

Yet Rafa being Rafa, even while winning by such lopsided scores, he still found a way to out-suffer his opponent. It happened over the course of one game. That game would win him the last two sets, and it would sum up so much about what has made him the best ever on clay, and one of the sport’s outstanding competitors.

Pella was serving at 2-5 in the first set. Nadal had started a little slowly, losing the first three points on his serve. The Argentine, who like Rafa is a lefty with a two-handed backhand, hung with him in the rallies through five games. But Nadal broke at the expected moment—3-2—and then held for 5-2. For a lot of players, the next step would be to take a couple of rips on the other guy’s serve, and then quickly start thinking about holding your own serve at 5-3.

Are you surprised that this wasn’t Rafa’s approach? Instead of loosening up with a three-game cushion, he played that game as if Pella was serving at 4-5, not 2-5—as if he absolutely had to have the break. Nadal stayed in every rally and ran down every ball, and never gave himself a mental break by pulling the ripcord on a point and hitting a low-percentage, go-for-broke shot.

When an opponent reaches game point on his or her serve, the tendency can be to wilt and give in a little mentally. Getting back to break point from there can seem like a long and unlikely mountain to climb, especially when you know you can still serve for the set in the next game. But Rafa never seemed tempted to just get the game over with. Even when he missed an easy return at break point, he went back to work and earned another.

This continued for 13 minutes. For 13 minutes Pella had to hit serves, which is exhausting. For 13 minutes he had chase down Nadal’s topspin and try to find ways to get on the offensive. And he did, often brilliantly. He saved one break point with a deft drop volley, and gave as good as he got from the baseline. But when his serve was finally broken, he was a broken man, too. He could offer only token resistance from then on.

Nadal had sent Pella a message in that 2-5 game: I can suffer more than you, even when I don’t have to suffer.

Afterward, Rafa was asked in Spanish how an athlete knows what his “limit”—his top level—is.

“I think this famous limit doesn’t exist because we don’t know where it is,” he said. “But there certainly is a limit, but I can’t think there is one because I don’t know where it is. I don’t know. We can’t decide where it is.”

After 13 years and 10 titles at Roland Garros, Nadal hasn’t discovered his limit. But along the way he’s helped a lot of his opponents including, Pella, find theirs.


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