Eight is Great: Nadal wins French Open

22:25 Sun 09 Jun 2013
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By beating David Ferrer 6–3, 6–2, 6–3, Rafael Nadal became the first man in tennis history to win one of the four Grand Slam events eight times. Since his debut in 2005, Nadal has won eight of nine possible titles at Roland Garros, missing out only in 2009. His record there is an astonishing 59–1. He now has 12 Grand Slam titles overall, putting him behind only Federer (17) and Sampras (14).

Today’s final was not a compelling one. David Ferrer has beaten Nadal on clay once—in 2004. While Nadal was likely to have beaten anyone he faced, as he has 98.33% of the time there, Ferrer is one of the three players in the top 10 least likely to give him any problems[1]. Ferrer is a phenomenal player and an absolute workhorse, who trains ceaselessly and is dedicated to wringing everything he can out of his tennis capabilities. He’s supremely fit and entirely willing to run around the court all day every day if that’s what it takes. While all of the top players are of course in amazing condition, Ferrer might stand out even among them.

But one of the reasons that he has to work so hard is that he doesn’t have the shots to overpower his opponents. The Big Four all have those weapons, as do the top 10 outsiders Berdych, Tsonga, and Del Potro. Ferrer’s ability to put everything back in play isn’t matched by his offense—but on the other side of the net, Nadal’s defense is as good as Ferrer’s, and he also routinely plays winners and near-winners from outrageous positions.

The most important shot in this match was probably Ferrer’s down-the-line backhand. Nadal’s backhand, while by no means a “weakness”, is not the equal of his amazing forehand, particularly on hurried shots. Because Nadal loves the cross-court forehand shot, going to a righty’s backhand, Ferrer needed to redirect the ball with force to Nadal’s backhand side if he were to stand a chance—otherwise he would have to go back to the Nadal forehand repeatedly, and only men with fearsome power having career days can beat Nadal that way. One of the reasons that Djokovic can beat Nadal—even on clay—is because Djokovic has an amazing backhand and, at 6′ 2″, can handle the topspin more easily than Ferrer at 5′ 9″[2].

Unfortunately for Ferrer and the spectators, he wasn’t hitting that shot well enough today. Which is understandable, considering that “well enough” would have meant hitting it harder than normal, closer to the lines than normal, and never missing it.

Ferrer also doesn’t seem to have the vision and touch that the Big Four do. Djokovic and Murray (and Nadal) can improvise excellently, can switch play styles at will, and can rapidly identify weaknesses in their opponents; Federer is simply a tennis genius. When the rest of the Big Four, despite their formidable powers, cannot beat Nadal at Roland Garros, it’s asking a tremendous amount of Ferrer to do so.

There is a Plan B against Nadal, for those not blessed with amazing court vision, phenomenal touch, and ironclad strokes (or tennis genius): hit every ball really hard. Slam every serve, then launch every subsequent shot into the corners at 90mph. That’s how Robin Söderling beat Nadal in 2009, how Del Potro beat him at the US Open in 2009[3], how Lukas Rosol beat him at Wimbledon in 2012, and how Daniel Brands took the first set of Nadal’s Roland Garros campaign this year. It helps a lot to be 6′ 4″ or taller to execute that plan, and it simply wasn’t an option for Ferrer. He had to stick with Plan A, hit the backhand down the line and hope for a miraculously good day on court.

It was Ferrer’s first ever Grand Slam final, the biggest match of his career apart from Davis Cup finals and the 2007 year-end championships final. The novelty and immensity of the occasion for him was another disadvantage.

What many saw at the outset as the “real final” was Friday’s semifinal between Nadal and Djokovic, a back-and-forth affair that saw Djokovic fall behind, conjure up a break when Nadal was serving for the match in the fourth set, go up 4–2 in the fifth set, give up the break, and then finally lose his concentration serving at 7–8 in the fifth. Despite that match, which went over four-and-a-half hours, Nadal looked fresh, and throughout this year has shown few ill effects from his seven-month injury layoff[4]. The outcome of the semifinal was in the balance until that final game, and Djokovic had beaten Nadal on clay this year.

Djokovic and Nadal are probably co-favorites for Wimbledon. Djokovic might have lost that match, but Nadal isn’t quite as good on grass as on clay. Federer is defending his title but has had a rather poor year; he must rediscover his form in order to do well. If he does, of course, he’s got as good a shot to win it as anyone. Murray skipped Roland Garros due to injury and it’s not clear what condition he’s in.

Ferrer, despite his first final, is unlikely to get as far on grass. Tsonga, as is typical for him, followed up an upset with a lackluster performance. Berdych went out early but could be a threat on grass. Del Potro isn’t likely to be, and the rest of the top 10 don’t seem to offer much to unsettle the Big Four.

It’s vaguely possible that Tommy Haas, who at 35 is almost back in the top 10 and has always liked grass, could make a run, but a title seems like an awful stretch, and there are no other players who seem even vaguely likely to cause more than the odd upset.

[1] The other two are Stanislas Wawrinka, who Nadal demolished in the quarterfinals, and Richard Gasquet, both of whom share a similar record of futility against Nadal.

[2] And one of the reasons that Roger Federer has such a hard time with Nadal is that Federer, with his one-handed backhand, simply cannot do the same with consistency; he only truly challenges Nadal on days when that shot is at its best or when he’s able to dictate play in other ways to avoid the repetition of that pattern.

[3] Although it must be said that at that point Del Potro had the court vision, defense, and ironclad strokes as well as the ability to hit the ball ridiculously hard, which is why he became the only man not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray to win a Grand Slam title since Nadal’s first French Open.

[4] Apart from his loss to Horacio Zoballos in the final of his first tournament back.

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