Okay, I’ve been waiting to use this line ever since Alexandr Dolgopolov cracked the Top 100: Every Dog Has His Day. Cue the rim-shot, and now let’s get down to business.
Any ATP pro can vouch that you just don’t beat Rafael Nadal by playing prudent, conservative tennis. Some of the more accomplished players will inform you that the way to beat Nadal is to take the game to him, to smother or force him, to take away his time. And in truth, every once in a while one or another of those aggressive strategies has worked, but more often than not the attempt is relegated to the “nice idea, didn’t work” file.
But tonight, Dolgopolov showed that there’s another layer to the onion, a level beyond mere “aggressive” or “attacking” play. There’s his specialty, which we can just call “reckless abandon.”
And that was good enough to earn The Dog a resounding upset at Indian Wells, as he knocked out the world No. 1, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (5). It was just Dolgopolov’s second win on hard courts over a Top 10 player, but it was a doozy.
Some Rafa fans will say they had seen something like this coming, but they would be trying to bend the truth to fit a convenient narrative—one in which Nadal’s back problems are largely to blame for what happened tonight. But it wasn’t Nadal’s back that failed tonight, at least not on the visible evidence. It was, ultimately, his nerve. But then, that’s precisely the kind of thing that can happen when you’re tangling with a guy who’s crazy and don’t care about nothin’.
And it will be easy for some to write off Dolgopolov as just a wild child, a ball-basher extraordinaire who happened to have a career night. That isn’t exactly true, or at any rate it doesn’t tell the entire story.
For one thing, it isn’t like anybody can play with as insane a disregard for the percentages as Dolgopolov; that’s a special gift. For another, most players would look downright idiotic if they attempted to play with reckless abandon. Dolgopolov may not be a Grand Slam champion, or even a Top 20 performer. But he’s an exceptional, radical talent.
And there is this: Dolgopolov all but handed Nadal the match on a silver platter late in the third set, but Nadal uncharacteristically fumbled and dropped it.
Dolgopolov staked out his mental turf early on. He allowed a break in the first game but broke right back with a blazing backhand winner. By the middle of the third game, he had burned through all three of his Hawk-Eye challenges, more or less frittering them away at absurd times, grinning all the while. He whaled on the ball, oblivious to whether it fell in or out, which is exactly the attitude you need to take if you have any hope of seeing those outrageous dream-bombs fall inside the lines.