Close early, not close late: Nadal solves Berrettini test at US Open

Close early, not close late: Nadal solves Berrettini test at US Open

Finding himself in a tight battle at the start, Rafael Nadal improved with each set to move within a match of claiming his 19th major title.

NEW YORK—The first set took 73 minutes. The last two took 82 minutes combined. Can you tell this was a Rafael Nadal victory?

Nadal’s 7-6 (6), 6-4, 6-1 win over Matteo Berrettini at the Open on Friday was both a standard-issue Rafa win, and a match that felt for a long period like it was poised on a knife-edge. Often, those two things are one and the same.

Berrettini tried to do what every towering, muscular player with a giant serve and forehand has tried to do against Rafa: Take the Spaniard’s topspin on the rise and hammer the ball past him. But like any good Italian, he also has his share of touch, and he employed that as well. When Rafa took up his customary position with the ball kids at the back of the court to return serve, Berrettini didn’t hesitate to throw in a well-measured drop shot. All he had to do was tap it over the net; even Rafa couldn’t make up the distance.

Berrettini’s plan—get first serves in, hit forehands, avoid backhands, use the whole court—very nearly won him the first set. Should have won him the first set. He saved six break points to reach a tiebreaker, then built leads of 4-0, 5-2, and 6-4. Berrettini roared, and the crowd followed suit: We had a match on our hands.

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In all of the uproar, though, Berrettini forgot the win the seventh point. At 6-4, he hit a tough backhand volley into the net, on a difficult dipping pass from Rafa. At 6-5, Berrettini missed his faithful drop shot badly after a long rally; it barely reached the net. At 6-6, Berrettini netted a backhand after another long rally. And at 6-7, he overhit a forehand long. The set was Rafa’s, and, as everyone in the stadium suspected, so was the match.

“First set was a little bit frustrating because I have a lot of break points,” Nadal said. “And you don’t want to be in a tiebreak with a player like Matteo after you’ve had a lot of break points.”

“So in the tiebreak, I was a little bit lucky, no? I survived at that moment, and had a lot of chances in the second set, and after that the match completely changed. I started to play with more calm and a little bit more aggressive.”

Nadal finally broke Berrettini at 3-3 in the second set, and the floodgates gradually opened from there. As he said, Rafa freed up and finished the match hitting the forehand winners from the baseline that Berrettini—who was now gassed—had been hitting in the first set. Most important, as it has been for much of the this tournament, was Nadal’s serve. He has decided to sacrifice first-serve percentage for extra pace, and the trade-off is panning out. He made just 55 percent of his first serves, but he won 90 percent of those points and 74 percent of his second serve points. While he earned 16 break points on Berrettini’s serve, he didn’t face one on his.

“I’m super-happy to be back in the US Open final,” Nadal said.

Before we leave this match behind, and before it fades into all of the other hundreds of similar, competitive-but-ultimately-not-that-close Rafa wins, I’ll circle back to something he said about his mentality when he was down 0-4 in the tiebreaker.

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He said that if you focus on the idea that you’re behind 0-4, it feels like a “long way”; it’s daunting to imagine catching up to your opponent before he gets to seven. Instead, Rafa said, “My goal was to win the next point on my serve.” When he did, he let out a “Vamos!” that came as something of a surprise under the circumstances—he was still down 1-4, after all, and Berrettini was serving.

Nadal then said that his next goal was to “one out of the two points on his serve.” To most of us, that probably sounded dangerously unambitious. Even if you accomplish your goal, you’re still down 2-5. But Rafa must have calculated that (a) winning both points on Berrettini’s serve was a lot to hope for; and (b) if he got to 2-5, he would have two serves for 4-5, and if he won both of those, he had a chance.

As he said, Rafa was lucky that it all worked out. But his comeback was also the product of the realism that goes along with having negotiating your way through so many situations like this. Usually Nadal is described as a guy who just tries like a maniac on every point, without modulating his effort. But there’s a lot of thought, and lot of expectation setting, behind that maniacal effort.

Nadal also knows that this moment, when he’s just three sets from a 19th major title, is not the time to lower expectations too much.

“Now is the time to keep going,” he said after his quarterfinal win on Wednesday. Today he continued that train of thought, and upped the ante a little more.

“Sunday is the day when I have to play my best,” he said.

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