In Montreal, Nadal pulls off first career hard-court defense with ease

In Montreal, Nadal pulls off first career hard-court defense with ease

Across 70 minutes in their first career meeting, the world No. 2 kept Daniil Medvedev thoroughly off balance and uncomfortable.

MONTREAL—When two players in the upper regions of the game meet for the first time, it's always intriguing to discover if the matchup favors one player or the other. Daniil Medvedev walked on court for his Rogers Cup final round skirmish with Rafael Nadal determined to impose himself, to set the tempo whenever possible and to force his will on an opponent who may well be tougher mentally than anyone who has ever picked up a racket. Medvedev was appearing in his second straight ATP Tour final after finishing as the runner-up to Nick Kyrgios in Washington last Sunday. 

But this was Medvedev’s debut in an ATP Masters 1000 title round, and he was facing someone who was experiencing his 51st final at that lofty tournament level—breaking a record he had shared with Roger Federer. Moreover, Nadal was striving mightily for a 35th ATP Masters 1000 crown.

In the end, Medvedev was thoroughly dissected by one of the sport’s premier match players, losing 6-3, 6-0 to the world No. 2. He was broken four times after losing his serve only three times all week, and was made to look disoriented across two sets that were largely played on Nadal’s terms. Nadal has now won 19 consecutive matches against Russians dating back to a 2011 loss to Nikolay Davydenko in Doha.

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Nadal has defended a hard-court title for the first time in his illustrious career. Those who witnessed the opening game of the match would never have envisioned such a lopsided scoreline in favor of the Spaniard. Serving into a swirling wind, confronted by a Medvedev who was striking the ball cleanly with full conviction—perhaps apprehensive as he figured out how to proceed tactically—Nadal’s hardest hurdle was actually the opening game of the match.

At 40-30, Nadal pulled an inside in forehand wide with a nice opening. He then fell behind break point for the first and only time in the match, but an errant backhand return from Medvedev sent the game back to deuce. After two more deuces, Nadal held on for 1-0. Nadal had poured in 11 of 12 first serves but had still struggled inordinately. Denying Medvedev that opportunity proved to be more critical than either player realized at the time.

With an ace down the T, Medvedev held at 15 for 1-1. He seemed to have his bearings. And yet, Nadal was unruffled. He started breaking down Medvedev off both sides, probing particularly well by going to the forehand side of the Russian. Meanwhile, Nadal unhesitatingly came forward when the openings were there. A delayed approach to the Medvedev forehand led to an easy volley into the open court for 40-15, and Nadal held comfortably for 2-1. Nadal ventured to the net again for 15-40 in the following game, implementing a delicate forehand drop volley to coax an error from his adversary. Medvedev erased one break point with an ace, but double faulted on the following point.

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It was 3-1 for Nadal, and he never looked back from that juncture. In a love hold for 4-1, the Spaniard did not miss a first serve and garnered three free points, attacking behind a first serve that was unanswerable, and adding two well placed deliveries that Medvedev could not handle. Medvedev held on for 2-4 but that did little to bolster his confidence. 

Two games later, serving for the set, Nadal was ahead 40-15 and double faulted, but made amends immediately for that mistake with a cagey chipped backhand crosscourt pass that left Medvedev vulnerable. The 23-year-old could not get much on a low forehand volley down the line, and Nadal pounced with a forehand passing shot winner down the line. First set to the Spaniard, 6-3.

Medvedev was dazed and somewhat defeatist, hitting two expensive double faults in the opening game of the second set. Nadal broke for 1-0. A pair of scintillating forehand winners propelled Nadal to a hold for 2-0. Medvedev was unraveling as Nadal played each point with purpose.

The Russian served a double fault for 30-30 in the third game. He then set up to serve from very wide, near to the alley in the deuce court. The obvious place to go on that point was wide, but he went to Nadal's forehand and it backfired.

The Spaniard won that point handsomely with a backhand chip pass winner off a drop shot from the beleaguered No. 8 seed. At 30-40, Medvedev pulled a backhand wide unjustifiably. Nadal had gained the insurance break for 3-0.

There was no stopping one of the sport’s ultimate professionals now. Nadal held at love for 4-0, broke again in a three deuce game for 5-0, and closed out the account with an easy hold to complete a well deserved triumph. And so the week ended on a high note not only for the Spaniard but for the tournament itself, which had record attendance in Montreal of 223,016 during the week.

Medvedev accepted his defeat philosophically. Asked if he felt pressure leading up to his contest with Nadal, he said, “Actually not that much because I’ve played Roger [Federer] two times, Novak [Djokovic] four times. I knew how it is going to be. I was kind of ready for it. Then I didn’t manage to probably show my best tennis but at the same time Rafa was I think incredible today."

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"My tactic was to not give him that much time, to try to play deep, to not give him easy shots," he added. "It was kind of working in the beginning of the match but then I completely lost the momentum. It was only him controlling the play, controlling the game. He just played too good. That’s how it went.”

For his part, Nadal was delighted.

“I played a solid match, my best match of the week without a doubt. I did a lot of things well, changing directions, changing rhythms during the point," he said. "The slice worked well this afternoon. I played some high balls, then changed down the line. I think I played smart this afternoon.”

Having said that, Nadal was not gloating or taking anything for granted. Told he looked as if he was on cruise control, he replied, “On this sport you are never under full control, no? Things change very quick. When you play almost every single player, when you play Masters 1000s, every single match is tough. Everybody has the potential to cause problems and everybody is dangerous.

"Even if you are winning, especially today when I was winning 6-3, 4-0, I know I have an advantage but of course I cannot be 100 percent calm knowing that I am going to win the match."

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Nadal’s view of himself is both clear and candid. His reverence for his fellow players and refusal to allow his ego to become inflated is what makes the 33-year-old so commendable. He has displayed this same humility all through his career: The Nadal who won in Montreal for the first time in 2005 over Andre Agassi was essentially the same honorable fellow he is today. 

Where will he go from here? A year ago, Nadal decided to bypass Cincinnati after winning the Rogers Cup in Toronto. He's withdrawn from the Western & Southern Open once again (citing fatigue) despite playing only four matches, and getting the benefit of a semifinal default from Gael Monfils.

By virtue of his triumph on Sunday—his third title of 2019 and the 83rd overall—Nadal now has taken over the lead in the ATP Race to London. Nadal came into Canada not really knowing what to expect from himself after not playing since a semifinal loss against Federer at Wimbledon. But now he is going strong, and the feeling grows that he's going to be making more headlines at his next stop, the US Open.