Welcome to another installment of LiveAnalysis! Today’s match between Rafael Nadal and Federico Delbonis marks the first time in over seven months that the greatest clay-courter of all time steps up to a tennis court to play an official singles match (Nadal’s return to official competition was yesterday, when he and Juan Mónaco teamed up to beat second seeds Frantisek Cermak and Lukas Dlouhy 3 and 2). Federico Delbonis, a 22-year-old from Argentina, came through the qualies in Viña del Mar and beat fellow countryman (and 22-year-old) Guido Pella in the first round yesterday. Delbonis won in a third set tiebreaker, but “only” after two hours and fourteen minutes. Interestingly enough, Delbonis has played three Argies and one Spaniard on his way to the second round.
As you can probably guess, Nadal and Delbonis have never played each other. The seven-time French Open champion mentioned that he knew Delbonis from practicing with him at some point in the past, and that the Argentine was a lefty “like me.” That’s a terrible omen for Delbonis, since Nadal is 63-6 in his career against fellow left-handers.
Things to Watch For:
1. Nadal’s movement: the eyes of the world will be on Nadal, and more specifically, on the Spaniard’s knee (though, to be fair, more than a few eyes will be focusing on other body parts). Will there be tape on it? Will Nadal be able to move like he usually likes to on clay?
2. How well will Nadal be able to use his backhand? That stroke is usually the tell-tale sign of the Kia ambassador’s confidence. One thing to focus on specifically is how much depth Nadal gets on his cross-court backhand. Also, it’ll be interesting to see how often Nadal goes down-the-line with his two-hander, and how often he uses his dodgy slice. When Nadal is feeling the pain on the knee, he usually tends to start slicing the backhand more often than he likes to.
3. Will Delbonis be able to test Nadal? This is surely the kid’s biggest match so far – if he manages to handle the pressure in a positive way and plays loose, he could contribute to a fun match.
4. How well has Delbonis been able to recover from his three-setter yesterday? This is a young player we’re talking about, one that doesn’t have the resources of a personal physio to aid him in the tough task of being ready for a match like today. Plus, he’s playing his fifth match in Viña del Mar already – a huge test for his fitness.
5. Is Federico Delbonis someone Argentina can count on in the near future? I’ve heard a lot about Delbonis in the past few years, but I’ve never managed to watch him play. He’s never been touted as a top 10-level talent, but it’ll be interesting to see if there’s top 20 or top 30 potential there. Argentina sure could use the infusion of youth.
The men are about to come on court, so we’ll begin soon!
Remember to refresh this page often, as I will be providing game-by-game updates throughout the match!
Many kudos to the Tennis Channel for reacting quickly to this opportunity and broadcasting this live. I often give them a hard time for their programming, but I have to tip my hat to them on this occasion.
Knee (and kit) update:
Rafael Nadal, in mauve, sprints to the baseline after the coin toss, is now warming up. Left knee taped, as it was in doubles yesterday.
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) February 6, 2013
Also, the stadium is absolutely packed. Leif Shiras (going solo for this match) said that tickets have been sold out for a while. Whatever money Viña del Mar invested in getting Nadal here was certainly money well spent.
First Set – Rafael Nadal will serve first
0-0: Delbonis must have won the coin toss, since Nadal is serving first, something that the Spaniard never chooses to do. The first point of the comeback? An errant inside-out forehand by Nadal, as he didn’t quite get his feet in place to properly hit that. Delbonis hits a good cross-court forehand of his won, forces the error from Nadal, and then takes advantage of a wide open ad court to send a backhand down-the-line winner for 15-40. Then, in a pretty fun point, Delbonis completely outmaneuvers Nadal (!) and sends a cross-court backhand winner into a wide open deuce court to break!
Well, Delbonis has come to play! The tall Argie is playing quite loose, and quite aggresively. He has a strange forehand swing, and he has the dubious habit of taking his sweet time to hit the ball off that wing, but there’s some intriguing talent there.
1-0, Delbonis: The 22 year-old holds at love with some impressive forehands and even better serving.
Delbonis is wisely trying to stretch Nadal wide with his own backhand, and has forced two errors from Nadal off that wing. Sound tactics, and very good execution from somebody who is probably playing in front of a packed crowd like this for the first time in his life.
2-0, Delbonis: Nadal seems to be struggling with depth, which doesn’t help his plan of trying to move Delbonis around. However, he does manage to force Delbonis’ forehand error after falling behind 0-30. I’m pretty sure Delbonis has only committed two unforced errors – the second one makes it 30-all. Nadal’s trusty ace up the T from the deuce court gives him his first game point of the match, which he converts with a nice lefty slider ace out wide.
Things looked pretty bleak at 0-30 for Nadal, but he found a way to take charge of the next two rallies, and then two straight aces bailed him out. The depth on the backhand isn’t there, and the same can be said about the depth on the forehand, too. Time to remember that Nadal hasn’t played a singles match in seven months, and that thousands and thousands of eyes are watching him, including a full stadium.
2-1, Delbonis: Two straight Nadal aces are followed by two straight double-faults by Delbonis. Is the kid nervous? It doesn’t show in the next point, as the Argie wrong-foots Nadal with a good backhand down-the-line. Sadly for him, he comes to net in the next point, and can’t handle a simple Nadal backhand pass. 15-40. First break point is saved by a great inside-out forehand winner. And the second one is saved by an even better cross-court angled forehand winner. More good backhands from Delbonis, and he has a chance to hold. It goes begging, as Delbonis nets a forehand unforced error on the second ball. A few moments later, we get the first “Vamos!” and fist pump combo from Nadal, as he blasts a forehand down-the-line passing shot that barely catches the line. Break point again, but it’s lost when Delbonis’ simple shot catches the net cord and dies a few inches into Nadal’s court. The Spaniard tracked it down, obviously, but couldn’t handle Delbonis’ lob. However, two straight stray forehand unforced errors by Delbonis give Nadal the break!
Nadal is still trying to find his comfort level in terms of movement, but that last game gave us a glimpse of Classic Nadal: the forehand down-the-line pass was absurd, and so was his hustle to chase down that ball that clipped the net.
2-2: Nadal hits a backhand down-the-line winner to go up 30-0! First backhand down-the-line of the match so far. Some good serving nets him a straightforward hold to 15, and for the first time, Nadal is ahead on the scoreboard.
Leif Shiras mentioned that Nadal has been serving well. After getting broken to start the match, I think that’s true: Nadal is serving 81% first serves, and has only lost one point on his second serve.
3-2, Nadal: Nadal races to a 0-30 lead, but just as quickly Delbonis makes it 40-30 after some fantastic (and very aggressive) forehands. Delbonis holds after winning the last two points on drop shots. Nifty.
Nadal is standing way far back to return serve, a habit that can become dangerous if he’s not getting depth on those returns. It’ll be interesting to see if he keeps that stance, or if he starts moving closer to the baseline as the match wears on and he gets a better idea of Delbonis’ service patterns.
3-3: Undaunted by Delbonis’ droppers, Nadal unveils a backhand dropper of his own to make it 30-15. He holds a little later to 15, once again.
I meant to write in the “Things to Watch For” section that I wondered how well Delbonis would be able to handle Nadal’s tricky serve. As we know, the king of Roland Garros doesn’t have a huge serve, but he puts a ton of action on it, which befuddles a lot of inexperienced opponents (and some experienced guys, too). Delbonis started well in this department, but we can probably chalk that up to Nadal taking some MPHs off his first serve to start. Since then, Delbonis has been having more and more trouble returning Nadal’s serve, and there seems to be more pop in those deliveries, too.
4-3, Nadal: Nadal is having more and more success moving Delbonis around, which is a sound idea, as the Argie is listed as 6’3″ and close to 200 pounds. Delbonis nets a backhand unforced error on the second ball at 30-all, and the young Argie will face another break point, which is saved by some smart tennis: an angled cross-court forehand opens up the deuce court for a simple forehand winner. Nadal is 1 for 5 on break points. It’s 1 for 6 after Nadal puts away an overhead but can’t get a deep return after a good lefty slider by Delbonis. The pair then trade unforced errors, but Delbonis hits a great backhand down-the-line to force Nadal’s error and have another chance to hold. It’s denied by a fantastic cross-court forehand return by Nadal. Another fantastic forehand by Nadal, this time down-the-line gives the Spaniard yet another chance to break, which once again goes unused as Nadal misfires on a forehand down-the-line pass. Delbonis then botches a chance to hold with a terribly executed dropper, and will face another break point as Nadal fires a cross-court forehand winner. Nadal is 1 for 7 on break points, but now it’s 2 for 8, as a flurry of fantastic forehands by the former World No. 1 give him the break.
— The Slice (@TheSliceTweets) February 6, 2013
That was a very long, very interesting game. Nadal seems to be shedding the rust quite nicely, as he’s getting his feet in the right position to hit better and better forehands. His returning is improving, too.
5-3, Nadal: Nadal’s forehand keeps getting better and better. Soon enough, he has 2 set points. The first one is wasted on an errant … forehand. LiveAnalysis jinx! But Nadal comes to net after a good cross-court forehand, and puts away a straightforward volley to take the first set of his singles comeback.
First Set to Rafael Nadal, 6-3
Here are your first set stats:
Second Set – Federico Delbonis will serve first
0-0: Nadal misfires on a forehand at 15-30, and is not pleased by it. Moments later, Nadal can’t track back another Delbonis dropper (the first one in a while that has crossed the net), and the Argie has a chance to hold. However, the young guy makes a rookie mistake, leaving a smash hanging long enough that Nadal can hit a brutal forehand pass off of it. A forced error by the Argie, and Nadal has a chance to break once again, his first of the second set. It’s wasted by another errant forehand by Nadal, who is nonplussed at the shot. A little later, Delbonis double faults, Nadal gets a great cross-court forehand return, and puts away a simple inside-out forehand to break to start the set!
Some nice Nadal trivia (and a bad omen for Delbonis):
that’s right, nadal has never lost to a lefty on RED clay at a Tour level event #vamos
— tennistweets.com (@tennistweetscom) February 6, 2013
We now learn that Justin Gimelstob is in Viña del Mar, and we’re hearing him on the phone. He calls Nadal’s movement hesitant, and was surprised that Delbonis hit so many winners at the beginning of the match.
1-0, Nadal: Nadal holds rather uneventfully, consolidating the break. Getting better and better at pretty much everything.
2-0, Nadal: Nadal’s forehand is on song, and he flies to a 0-40 lead. It’ really astounding to see how well he’s playing right now as compared to the beginning of the match. The forehand stopped being short and now it feels like it’s a haymaker straight at Delbonis’ entire body. Nadal breaks after a nifty backhand combo.
I used to joke that it takes Nadal about 15 minutes to get used to a clay court. Right now, the man is in a rich vein of form, pummeling forehand after forehand with great depth and great pace. Delbonis, who is not a great mover, is finding it harder and harder to get into points and have a chance to dictate – Nadal has effectively pushed him back, as he usually does on clay.
3-0, Nadal: Nadal is up 40-0 until Delbonis finally has a chance to hurt him with a deep return. Nadal then misfires on a put-away forehand (sending it long), and it’s 40-30. Delbonis returns the favor, and hands Nadal the point with a forehand misfire of his own.
It’s interesting to note that once Nadal’s forehand got going, Delbonis’ execution level dropped dramatically. Well, maybe it’s not that interesting: it’s harder to attack when one is being pushed around like that. However, Nadal has yet to find good depth and pace on the backhand side. That’s expected, and it’ll be interesting to see if anybody in this Viña del Mar draw can find ways to survive Nadal’s forehand onslaught and find the Spaniard’s backhand. I’m sure Nadal himself would appreciate the challenge.
Almost pronounced this The Year of Delbonis after the first two games. Probably good I held off. Nadal up 4-0 in 2nd. #atp
— Steve Tignor (@SteveTignor) February 6, 2013
4-0, Nadal: Delbonis finds himself in a 15-30 hold, but some great shots get him on the scoreboard in the second set for the first time.
4-1, Nadal: Nadal hits his second best backhand of the match, a cross-court missile that seals a hold to 15. I’m sure Toni will like that.
Leif claims that he heard from “reports” that Nadal autographed a baby on the practice courts one day. That’s … a new one.
5-1, Nadal: I keep jinxing Nadal’s forehand: two misfires off that wing start a run of points that sees Delbonis hold at love for the first time since the beginning of the first set. Nadal will now serve for his first win in over seven months.
5-2, Nadal: A ridiculous forehand return by Delbonis is followed up by another great forehand, and it’s 15-30. However, Delbonis botches a return, and it’s 30-all. A backhand unforced error by the Argie, and Nadal has his first match point. He goes for an inside-in forehand, but it sails long. Deuce. A service winner up the T, and it’s match point number two. An errant forehand by Delbonis seals it – Nadal has won a match for the first time in what seems like ages.
Game, Set and Match to Rafael Nadal, 6-3, 6-2
Here are your second set stats:
It’s pretty remarkable that Rafael Nadal, after not playing a competitive singles match in over half a year, found a way to navigate such a tricky opening part to today’s match. It was the worst possible situation for him: his shots were landing short, his movement was a little hesitant, and his opponent was playing with the kind of tactical clarity and focused aggression that could get anybody in trouble. This Delbonis onslaught didn’t last that long, though: it ended exactly at 0-30 on Nadal’s second service game. Nadal was probably thinking that the match shouldn’t be so tough so early, but the thought didn’t seem to get in the way of finding ways to dig himself out of the hole, and turn the tide in his favor.
During the match I tried to focus most of my attention on Nadal’s backhand. I was particularly interested in seeing if Nadal could get depth and pace consistently off that wing, and if he felt confident enough to go down the line regularly with it. Overall, I think the two-hander belonging to Xisca’s boyfriend fared as it usually does at the beginning of tournaments: there were few (if any) unforced errors off that wing, but depth was elusive, and if memory serves me right, Nadal didn’t hit more than three backhands down-the-line in the entire match. Still, that’s pretty much the status quo for Nadal’s backhand since 2010, so it’s not necessarily a terrible thing if that part of his game didn’t look all that great today. You can even say that after such a long layover, being able to reach status quo is a positive, even. After all, Nadal is not playing Novak Djokovic anytime soon.
What I was amazed by is how well Nadal’s forehand worked after those initial rust-induced wobbles. At the beginning of the match every Nadal shot was landing short, and Delbonis was feasting on everything. However, once Nadal shook those initial nerves and his footwork got on par with what his mind wanted to do, that most unique shot in men’s tennis starting delivering blow after blow. It was a vintage show of what Nadal can do with his forehand on clay: change the direction of the ball with ease, open up the court with cross-court angled shots, load up on topspin to push Delbonis back, and inject enough pace to make it virtually impossible for a below-average mover like the Argentine to get back on the offensive after Nadal delivered the first blow of the rally. Sure, since Nadal kept the pace meter on “high” for his forehand, some unforced errors crept in. That’s natural and perfectly understandable given the kind of shots Nadal was going for. It was even amusing to see Nadal’s annoyed reaction at missing a forehand – one almost wanted to let him know that it’s okay: even one of the great tennis players in history is allowed for some forehand unforced errors after not playing competitively for over seven months.
Another aspect of Nadal’s game that stood up for me was his serving. Sure, he wasn’t exactly going for it at the start of the match (maybe Delbonis’ decision to defer on the coin toss rattled Nadal a bit – Mr. Don’t Mess With My Water Bottles is, after all, a creature of habit). However, in just his second service game, Nadal unloaded on two bombs that went untouched, and from then on he didn’t have much trouble holding serve.
Now, a few words on Delbonis: the Argie showed some promise at the beginning of the match, which is commendable, given the strange setting he found himself playing in: a packed stadium that was obviously rooting for his opponent, in just the second round of the tournament! I’m pretty sure no more than a few hundred folks saw Delbonis play in his previous four matches in Viña del Mar, so to see the Argie come out with such aggression and tactical smarts was very, very intriguing. However, once the match got going with Nadal shaking off both rust and nerves, it became clear why we haven’t seen much of Delbonis until now: he’s 6’3″, and not the Andy Murray kind. The 22 year-old is not a great mover, and finds it tough to get back into a point once he’s forced to defend. And while most pro players will look awesome when their opponent is feeding them short balls, the true test of someone’s talent is how they respond when the balls are coming closer to the baseline.
In that sense, Delbonis did not impress: he takes the ball way too late, and his forehand swing is way too elaborate for him to get some semblance of consistency. When the Argie has time to set his feet and unload, that forehand looks fantastic. But on the run and when he’s pushed back, the struggle for depth was a very real one. I was actually more impressed with Delbonis’ backhand – the lefty found ways to get some nice angles with that shot, and he wrong-footed Nadal a couple of times with some timely backhands down-the-line. He also showed off a nice ability to hit drop shots – Delbonis was quite successful at recognizing when Nadal was standing too far back to return serve, offering the near court as an opportunity to win easy points. The problem for Delbonis was figuring out what to do when the Spaniard’s returns started coming back progressively deeper and with more pace.
The other problem that I thought Delbonis could do well to sort out is to serve like a lefty who is actually 6’3. Del Potro had that issue as well – few remember that the former US Open champion had a pretty unimpressive serve when he was breaking into the scene. Delbonis is 22 already, and that serve is not where it needs to be for someone of his height, which surely causes him problems when he’s not playing on clay. Also, he does not have that lefty slider from the ad court that serves lefties so well.
Still, those initial three games were quite promising from the Argentine. I’m sure Nadal appreciated the challenge – it was a rather harsh welcome back message, but one that will serve the Spaniard well going forward.
Nadal’s second match in Chile should be fascinating. If anything, I would be surprised if the man from Manacor can reach the heights reached today. Nadal will also be playing a more experienced opponent: either Albert Montañés or Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Still, if Nadal manages to hit his forehand and serve like he did today, it will be a tall task for anybody left in the Viña del Mar draw to find ways to survive those forehand haymakers, figure out how to make Nadal hit backhands routinely, and take advantage of any short balls without making many errors. It’s a tall order for a rather weak field that already lost its defending champion today.
The main challenge of a comeback is being able to get that consistency a professional player gets from playing matches week in and week out. With today’s display, Nadal has set the bar higher than I expected for his future matches.
But then again, he wouldn’t be Rafael Nadal if he didn’t do precisely that.