By Amy Salmon
It’s the hair that’s a dead giveaway.
When Rafael Nadal is on court and his timing and rhythm are off, his hair is even more out-of-control than usual. There’s a certain tilt to the bandana, it’s pushed up with just a little bit of hair hanging down below it on his forehead, which is inevitably dripping with sweat.
Every Rafa fan can tell it’s one of those matches just by looking at the hair, even if they turn it on at a point in the match when the scoreboard isn’t being displayed.
That particular bandana-and-hair combination instantly tells us he’s in a fight for his life out there, and at the moment, he’s losing.
He usually ends up winning in the end, sometimes when the hair is at its wildest, but not always.
Australian Open 2009 semi vs. Verdasco? Won.
Madrid 2012 Round of 16 vs. Verdasco? Lost, in the single worst match I think I’ve ever seen him play. He deserved to lose that one, and still almost won. Blame it on the blue clay.
Australian Open 2009 final vs. Federer? Won.
Madrid 2009 semi vs. Djokovic? Won, but ended up losing the next day in the final to Federer because the semi was such a slogfest. I think it’s still the longest three-set match in men’s tennis history. Four hours of grinding, endless baseline rallies. One of the many matches that Rafa had no business winning, but somehow did anyway.
Roland Garros 2009 Round of 16 round vs. Soderling? Lost, still the only time he’s done so on the red clay courts in Paris. Many blamed it on the pink shirt he was wearing, but the bandana told the real story.
Most of these endless and gut-wrenching matches where Rafa seems to lose the ability to hit the ball inside the lines of a tennis court despite being the number one tennis player in the world have a common denominator: injury. (Mostly the knees.) There’s a snarky meme going around that says no one can beat a healthy Nadal, which isn’t strictly true.
But…it very nearly is.
He doesn’t have the highest winning percentage in the history of men’s tennis by accident. He has a losing record to exactly one other active player: Nikolay Davydenko. He has a winning record against every other active player that he’s played more than one time.
I’ll say that again, because it can’t be said enough: He has a winning record against every other player on the tour.
No other tennis player in history has been that dominant, ever. It’s insane how often, and how consistently, Rafa wins.
Roger Federer’s losing record against Rafa is often cited as the main argument against him being universally lauded as the greatest of all time, or GOAT. But it’s not only Roger that has that problem. He’s got a lot of company in having a losing record to Rafa.
Like EVERY OTHER PLAYER ON THE TOUR.
It’s not that Rafa never loses. He just doesn’t lose often, and almost never to the same player more than once in a row. He’s just that good. You might get him once, especially if you come in on fire and hitting the lines and with a huge serve. You have a chance, especially the first time he plays you, especially if it’s on a fast court and it’s a best-of-three match. It’s possible that you’ll hit him off the court before he figures out how to beat you. Possible, but not likely. Your best shot is to catch him early in a tournament, especially after a layoff. He can be a little rusty and sometimes has to work himself into a tournament. So you might get him. Once. The next time, watch out. He’s not out for revenge because you beat him; he’s just better than you are, and now that he’s seen your game, he knows how to beat you.
Don’t feel bad. It’s not you. It’s him. He knows how to beat everybody, and almost always does.
Except when he’s injured, and then, you really have a chance.
He still knows how to beat you, and he probably still will, but when (mostly) his knees are acting up and he can’t run or bend, his shots start to fall short. He’s still doing all the right things, but they aren’t working the way they usually do. The forehand swoops down with as much topspin as ever, but it’s just slightly mistimed, and it falls a half inch behind the baseline instead of right on the middle of it or safely inside. The “banana shot” forehand doesn’t curl back in quite enough, and falls just inside the doubles alley. The serve goes into the net.
The surface matters, too. It’s inaccurate to say that Rafa isn’t any good if the surface isn’t clay; his just-won 700th professional match – won on grass– is testament to that as much as his 2 Wimbledons, 2 US Opens, 1 Australian Open and Olympic Gold Medal, won on the fast hard courts in 2008 in Beijing. (We won’t even talk about the Masters Series titles and all of the others; there isn’t time.) (OK, just one more incredible stat: Last year he had a better record on hard courts than he did on clay, and he became the first player since Andy Roddick in 2003 to win Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open in the same season.) His ridiculous numbers are just even better on clay. However, it’s easier to get a surprise win against Rafa, especially if you are a big hitter, if the surface beneath his feet is grass or an indoor hard court.
One more note on those two US Opens and the Olympic Gold Medal: He beat Novak Djokovic in either the final or semi-final to win those titles. Why, then, is Djokovic considered so much better than Rafa on hard courts? It infuriates me when people give Rafa no shot against Djokovic on a hard court. Look at the stats. And to actually pick him over Nadal this year at Roland Garros, on the basis of the match in Rome? Please. Talk to Roger Federer about how much 3-set wins on the European clay swing against Rafa matter once you get to Paris. How many times has he beaten Rafa at Roland Garros again? Oh, that’s right, ZERO. Just like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray and EVERYONE ELSE ON THE TOUR, except one man.
Robin Soderling, your legend grows. And Robin Soderling’s record against Nadal? At Roland Garros and everywhere else? 2-6. At RG it’s 1-3. We all know about the 1, but the other 3 were easy straight-set wins in 2008, 2010 and 2011. At 2010 it was in the final, and it wasn’t close. Rafa beat him easily.
The only other time Robin Soderling beat Rafael Nadal (so far; come back soon, Robin!) was later in that same year, 2009, at the ATP World Tour Finals. That was an awful tournament for Rafa and his fans; in fact 2009, the Year of Soderling, was just all-around awful. He got creamed by Juan Martin Del Potro at the US Open 2, 2 and 2 in a terrible match…that time it wasn’t the knees alone but also an abdominal tear that wouldn’t allow him to serve combined with the atomic forehands DelPo was hitting all over the place. And at the WTFs that year in London at the O2, he didn’t win a set. He looked miserable and played that way, too.
But Soderling’s win over him there still stands out, because it’s one of the rare defeats Rafa suffered to the same player twice in a row, especially after the kind of shock upset Soderling pulled over Rafa at RG. (It’s one reason Djokovic’s seven-match win streak against him in 2011-12 got such relentless press; it’s rare. But their rivalry has actually always been streaky, in both directions. That part doesn’t get as much press. I guess it’s not as convenient a storyline as “Djokovic is in Nadal’s head and Nadal will never beat him again, even at Roland Garros!”.)
Soderling’s quite a talent; don’t get me wrong. But Rafa owned him prior to that match at RG; he’d just beaten him in Rome 1 and 0 and even on clay, you don’t see those scorelines from Rafa all that often. And since 2009, he’s owned him again. As I said, the 2010 final at the French Open, hyped to high heavens by tennis media, wasn’t an exciting match. The outcome was never in doubt. Rafa won so easily that the upset looked even odder in retrospect; how was Soderling able to do all of those things one year and none of them the next, on the same court?
The surface, the weather, the knees, and the confidence…and the tactical genius of Rafael Nadal, which I think is too often overlooked when he is analyzed. He is remarkable at making mid-match adjustments when he needs to, and at continuing to do the same thing over and over when it is working, which is also a sound tactic that gets derided more than I will ever understand. When Nadal gets criticized for being one-dimensional and a ball-basher who only knows how to do one thing, I just shake my head. If hitting the ball with high topspin to Roger Federer’s backhand over and over again works and has allowed you to beat him 23 times, why stop doing it?
All of this brings me to this year’s Wimbledon, which had survival mode built right into the draw from the very first round. Although he’s a two-time Wimbledon champion, the last two years haven’t been kind to Rafa; the knees and the grass and big-hitting opponents, along with an ill-timed closing of the Centre Court roof, have come together and resulted in early exits. This year in Halle continued the unfortunate pattern, with unpredictable Dustin Brown escorting him right out of Halle before he’d had time to unpack.
The first-round matchup had me worried; Martin Klizan is the kind of dangerous player that could easily keep the trend going, and I wasn’t sure he’d make the second round. Even if he did, he’d likely meet another dangerous player, one Lukas Rosol. Rosol’s win over Rafa in the second round of Wimbledon 2012 is high on the list of Shocking Upsets of Top Players. Ranked 100 at the time, the big-hitting Czech came in with nothing to lose and everything to gain and sure enough, he blew Rafa off the court. Rafa and his ailing knees went back to Mallorca, for seven and a half months.
The next time Rafael Nadal played Lukas Rosol was earlier this year, on a fast hard court in Doha. The tennis pundits went crazy, saying how dangerous it was for Nadal and how Rosol knew how to beat him and on and on and on. Rafa had never won Doha, but hadn’t exactly disgraced himself there (well…except possibly for the time Nikolay Davydenko, remember him? Only one with a winning record against Rafa on tour? Yeah, that guy…beat him in the 2010 final…after losing the first set 0-6! That wasn’t a great match for Nadal fans either. The final score was 0-6, 7-6 (8), 6-4.). It’s not a great court for him, but it’s not like he can’t play on it. To listen to the tennis media, however, you’d be sure that was the case. It wasn’t, though. Rafa came out super-aggressive and won, 6-2, 7-6 (7). The pattern of get me once, good luck with twice had held true once again. Once the element of surprise was gone and Rafa knew what he was dealing with, it was a different story.
First came Klizan, though: survival mode, take one. Incredibly, I fell back asleep after my alarm woke me up a little before 6 here in the Mountain time zone, so by the time I made it to the TV the first thing I saw was Rafa looking anxious, with the bandana riding high, and the chair umpire was saying “Game and first set, Klizan”. Oy. When I heard that he’d double-faulted at 4 all to lose serve I knew for sure it was going to be one of those days. But he was fighting and vamosing! for all he was worth, and soon enough, he’d righted the ship. By the middle of the third set I had relaxed enough to be scanning the Wimbledon app on the iPad to see what was going on elsewhere, and the bandana was back in its normal position. (He was still sweating profusely, but that’s not a sign of survival mode; that’s a sign that you’re watching Rafael Nadal.) By the end of the fourth set, it was all over, and the joy on Rafa’s face – another sign of survival mode is the intensity of the after-match celebration – told the result as clearly as the scoreboard.
Now for the Rosol test. I wasn’t surprised that Rafa lost the first set, although I was hoping it wouldn’t be at exactly the same moment. At least he didn’t double-fault, and he was making inroads on the Rosol serve. Rosol had come out again with nothing to lose and bragging that Nadal was the one who should fear him and for now, at least, he was backing it up.
I had a feeling, though, that those high-risk, high-reward, go-for-broke shots wouldn’t keep hitting the lines for five sets. When he broke Rafa again early in the second, the bandana starting creeping up, but Rafa didn’t have the anxious look that strikes fear in the hearts of his fans. He looked more annoyed and determined; biding his time. The break back came soon after, and it was all over. The second-set tiebreak was key and when it ended on a Rosol double-fault I knew it was only a matter of time. Rosol’s high-risk shots did indeed start falling outside the lines, and he had no Plan B.
Rafa found his range on the return and stood closer sometimes on the first serves than on the seconds, and broke again and again. No roof came to Rosol’s rescue this time, so he’s the one going home early.
On Saturday morning with Mikhail Kukushkin, it never rose to the level of survival mode; more like weathering the storm. Rafa’s never had any problems with Kukushkin before, but the Kazakh is a shotmaker who’s had some success in Davis Cup, particularly on indoor hard courts. He likes the big stage and wasn’t afraid to take it to Rafa. When I saw that the roof was closed I was a little concerned, and sure enough the first set was competitive. I was surprised Rafa actually lost it; he was in all of Kukushkin’s service games and Mikhail was in none of his, but anything can happen in a tiebreak, and so we went four. As so often happens when mid-level guys come up against the top players, he got a set, and then he was out of gas. Rafa broke once, and he had him, and at last, he’s back in the second week at SW19.
Rafa likes survival mode; he likes to talk about the joy in the suffering. I get it; it’s the idea that the things you have to work the hardest for are the ones you cherish above all others. Weeks with these kinds of matches are like that for him. I think he prefers them, in a way, to the ones that aren’t much of a challenge. They sharpen him for the greater challenges that lie ahead.
Good luck, Nick Kyrgios. I have a feeling you’re going to need it.
But…we gonna see, no? (Sorry, couldn’t resist!)