At the US Open, Rafael Nadal might be more oppressive than the weather

by: Joel Drucker | August 29, 2018

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NEW YORK—“On some nights New York is as hot as Bangkok,” read the opening lines of a novel written by that great American author, Saul Bellow. In the wake of his 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 loss this oppressively warm summer evening to Rafael Nadal, Vasek Pospisil could relate to the title of Bellow’s book: The Victim.

Though of course Pospisil hadn’t planned on becoming a victim, by the time this two-hour long match had ended, he had indeed been respectfully, but ruthlessly, kicked to the curb by a man who knows no other way.

Bellow’s assertion rang harshly this evening. Just prior to 9:30 p.m., as Nadal and Pospisil entered Arthur Ashe Stadium for their second-round match, it was a sultry 86 degrees. With Serena Williams having opened the evening session with a routine straight-set win, fans were hungry for a compelling encore.  Blaring music and spectator chatter made it all sound like a bus station with a broken air conditioning system. 

As is always the case, Nadal was the driver. Per usual, he bounded up to the net for the coin toss, bouncing on his feet like a boxer. Pospisil too was excited, also jumping up at that stage with a few kangaroo jumps. He knew what all know: that to play Nadal you must not just hit great shots. You must compete—that is, thoroughly bring your highest possible level of energy, usually for at least three hours.    

Nadal’s high-intensity ancestor, Jimmy Connors, once praised how Nadal competed as if he were broke. At night, Nadal’s volume goes up even higher, the Spaniard playing not just with an empty bank account, but as the patriarch of a family about to be booted into the gutter. By day, at places like Roland Garros, Nadal knows he has nothing but time, that over the course of a patient but passionate Parisian afternoon he will command the clay. Under the lights, especially amid tonight’s vexing conditions, he began the match with supreme urgency, within ten minutes taking a 3-0 lead. 

Nadal broke Pospisil in trademark fashion. Positioning himself closer to the stands than the baseline to return serve, Nadal flung back the return, then swarmed forward and laced Pospisil’s reply with an early forehand whipped down-the-line that elicited something Nadal loves: an error. For a winner earns but a single point, but to compel someone to miss is doubly good—a message to the opponent that Nadal is here to stay and that the other guy is, as the old Aussies liked to say, keen to lose. 

Serving for the first set at 5-3, Nadal struck two monster forehand approaches to go up 30-love, then closed it out with a 109 m.p.h. ace to Pospisil’s forehand. 

The second set saw Pospisil remain optimistic—at least for six games. A pair of slick passing shots and a double-fault helped him break Nadal at 2-3. Through those early stages, Pospisil had remained engaged, his legs continuing to pump, his desire to find solutions still high. But, as so often happens to Nadal opponents, it had taken so much energy merely to grab a toehold that Pospisil had no ability to climb higher. Serving at 4-2, he lost 16 of the next 17 points. Second set to Nadal, 6-4. 

With Pospisil serving the opening game of the third, Nadal broke at love. Off to the races?  Not exactly.  More like a tightening of the noose, Pospisil’s legs had withered. His breath had become labored. 

Meanwhile, here in Bangkok—I mean New York—Nadal was in high gear, not so much cruising as bruising. Sweating profusely, on the rectangle he persistently manages to turn into a bullring, Nadal patrolled the court with lassoed topspin forehands, concussive backhands, deft volleys and sustained concentration. Soon the third and final set was his, 6-2.

If The Victim had applied to Pospisil, it was another line from Bellow that fit Nadal: “You have to fight for your life. That’s the chief condition on which you hold it.” 

Nadal had begun this match with the urgency of a man threatened with eviction. Now he was safely home, primed yet again for another battle.

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