Monday, 11 February 2013

Rafael Nadal: The Seven Month Itch

The Overrule's Jay Jarrahi teamed up with Tennis Talk's Cheryl Murray to discuss the return of Rafael Nadal to the men's game. It's been over seven months since the tennis world saw Nadal hit a ball in anger, but that wait is now over. Cheryl and I take a look back at the week gone by and what the immediate future holds for Rafa. 

  • Nadal's return to the tour - what it meant for tennis?

Cheryl: I don't ever remember fans or the ATP itself being so excited to have someone back from injury. The ATP had a "welcome back Rafa" page on their site which was an indication of this. The truth is that tennis is far more interesting with Nadal in it than not. David Ferrer, for all of his qualities, is an incredibly poor substitute.

Jay: It certainly gave tennis a welcome boost at quite an opportune time. The period in between the Australian Open and the start of Indian Wells/Miami can be somewhat of a downturn in the calendar and Nadal's return has kept tennis at the forefront of the sporting news. In addition to giving the South American clay court swing a huge boost in exposure and finance with all of the sponsorship and media that Rafa attracts. It's really been a hugely positive re-introduction for the ATP and tennis once again has that added dimension and dynamic style of play that Rafa brings to the tour.

Cheryl: I've been covering the "golden swing" for years, it has never received this much attention and that can only be a good thing for tennis.  

Jay: There was a period where South American tennis in general was booming in the early/mid 2000's with the likes of Gustavo Kuerten, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Coria, Guillermo Canas, Gaston Gaudio, Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu as high profile personalities in the region. 

That has tailed off mightily in recent years, particularly with Juan Martin del Potro preferring to play indoors in Europe during that period thus removing a star attraction for the South American events. So Nadal playing in South America has once again opened tennis eyes to how popular the sport is there and that it's still a largely untapped area by the ATP. 

Cheryl: The ATP has chosen to focus its efforts on Asia in terms of an emerging market. But with Rafa's return to the dirt in South America, there is a resurgence of interest in not only South American tennis, but tennis in general. Roger Federer and Nadal are the sport's lifeblood and have been for a while. As evidenced in Chile, either one can make (or break, in the case of Doha) a tournament.

  • Nadal's first week back - the expectations? 

Jay: Naturally, I expected there to be a fair amount of rust with Nadal's game. Aside from the technical aspects, the confidence mentally to have faith in his knee once the stress of a match situation arose was surely going to play on his mind somewhat. As the strength of the field was limited, I nevertheless expected Nadal to win the singles title without dropping a set. The difference in class between him and the rest was something I didn't believe any player in the field could overcome, particularly as the week wore on.

Cheryl: I had few expectations of Nadal's form. I don't feel out of line calling him the best clay courter to play the game (though Bjorn Borg fans may argue), but I also know that Nadal needs to work his way into form. I believe that he is still nervous about sustaining injury and it caused him to play tentatively when he otherwise would have gone full-out. 

I am not completely surprised that he did not win the tournament, only that the defeat came in the finals, as I expected the rust to catch up to him a bit earlier than it did. I watched each match and saw what I expected to see - glimpses of his old brilliance in between the rust.

Jay: Borg fans may well argue, but Nadal plays a game on clay that is just ferocious, I don't have any qualms about him being the greatest ever on clay. It's always difficult to compare eras and not a topic I'm fond of, but as the sport evolves, as do the demands and stresses on a player. And what we see currently on tour is something we've never seen before in terms of its relentless intensity. It's a war when you face Nadal on clay, and a war very few live to tell the tale about in a sporting context! 

Cheryl: Beating Rafa on clay is kind of the "final frontier" in tennis. Not beating Federer on grass or Novak Djokovic on hard's Rafa on clay. All credit to Horacio Zeballos for getting the win, but with the seven month layoff and the fact that he only stepped back on the court to hit balls a couple of months ago, it's hard to read too much into the loss. Andy Murray was recently quoted as saying that people are afraid to beat Rafa on clay and that's why he wins. I disagree. I believe that Nadal is so brutal on clay that even if, somehow, he managed to play somebody who had never heard of him, by the end of the match, they'd be a little afraid. 

  • Vina del Mar - the verdict?

Cheryl: Nadal's form was precisely what I expected when it was finally confirmed that he would play. I expected that he would show what I'd call "signs of life". I guessed that he would have difficulty winning this event, not because his clay court level had dropped so dramatically, but because Nadal is a confidence player. His best clay court tennis is played from what I'd call his "groove", which he has not yet found.

I further believe that he lost the final because he tightened up. Nobody, not even the mighty Rafael Nadal, comes back after a seven month layoff and wins the first tournament out.

Jay: The biggest aspect I looked out for was Nadal's movement and timing. This is a key area for any successful clay court player and aside from the mental match toughness that more matches and winning will bring about, it's the movement that will likely be the last piece of the jigsaw to fall into place. 

There was clearly a tentativeness about some aspects of his game. A natural consequence of being away from the action for so long. His first serve percentage was consistent throughout his four matches in the 68-79% mark, but he didn't have the pop on it that he might have liked to deliver in certain instances. In fact he won a higher percentage of second serve points in his first two matches than on first serve. He struggled on Daniel Gimeno-Traver's first serve, but with his fellow Spaniard registering a poor 40% of first serves in, it had no lasting impact on the match. 

Zeballos served extraordinarily well in the final and this was something very few, if any of us, could see coming. Up until the first set tie-break, Nadal had only won four points on the Zeballos serve, but was able to grind him down in the tie-break. At that point I expected Zeballos to fade having played so well in the first set, but he deserves immense credit for sticking to the task.

Once Nadal was broken back at the start of the third set, he appeared at his most vulnerable than at any point in the week. Zeballos wasn't backing down and eventually continuing to attack Nadal whenever he could wore Rafa down to some extent. His lack of match play in deciding moments was evident in the latter stages. It's all a matter of progression for Nadal and as the weeks and months go on, the Vina del Mar final will have proven to be a very valuable first test for him.

  •  Sao Paulo - what to expect?

Jay: Nadal's early round draw is very similar to Vina del Mar and I'd expect him to make light work of his opponents before reaching another final. The possibility of him facing Nicolas Almagro for the title in Brazil is quite enticing, as it represents another step on the ladder in Nadal's climb back to the top of the game. His improvement in the coming weeks will likely be steep before he eventually reaches a plateau in his game. Playing doubles with Nalbandian, as he did with Juan Monaco in Chile, will once again give him valuable time on court. 

Cheryl: I expect better tennis from Rafa in Sao Paulo. In fact, I think he might relish the idea of taking on Almagro by the time he gets to the final. The fact that Rafa is an optimist will play in his favor. He will be able to tell himself that he did well to get to a final in his first tournament back, not that it was poor of him to lose the final. 

Jay: If he wasn't already hungry to win titles after seven months off, he'll no doubt have been emboldened by what happened on Sunday in Chile. It should certainly make for a compelling battle with Almagro, should that match come to fruition. It's a match Nadal needs to have to further build on his reintegration back onto the tour. 

  • The immediate future up until the French Open - how might it develop?

Cheryl: I believe that Sao Paulo will go well for Rafa. He has a few matches under his belt now and he'll be especially motivated because of what happened against Zeballos. I would expect that if he manages to get to Almagro that he'll be ready to throw down.

Acapulco has traditionally boasted Ferrer in the field and David Ferrer on clay is no pushover. I am really hoping to see this match, because I believe it will tell us what we need to know for Miami and Indian Wells. Meaning, if Rafa is playing well enough to beat Ferrer on clay, he should be in good shape for a semi-final showing at least at Indian Wells and the quarters in Miami.

Jay: It's important for his confidence to come out of this South American clay court swing with at least one title. Although Nadal often plays down such importance and clearly recognising the relief and joy he must feel to be back playing at all, the fact remains Rafa is a fierce competitor. It was clear defeat to Zeballos hurt him, he's not used to such situations and he won't want to go into Indian Wells doubting himself. 

What lies for him back on US hard courts is another obstacle altogether. That will be an uncertain time for him mentally, since we know the punishment those courts dish out on the body. It will be a nervous time for the Nadal camp and tennis in general to see how he holds up from those demands. 

It wouldn't surprise me, in fact I'm half expecting Nadal to experience early exits at Indian Wells and Miami. His progression back on to hard courts will develop at a lesser rate than on clay, which is effectively his playground.

Cheryl: The courts in Indian wells suit Rafa's game pretty well, but I'm not expecting much in Miami. I doubt either of those tournaments will have much effect on his European clay swing. He's fortunate to start at Monte Carlo, his best tournament of the year. His form there has nearly always predicted his results at Roland Garros. The one time he lost at the French Open, he didn't play that well in Monte Carlo.

Jay: I agree Indian Wells and Miami won't have much bearing as to indicators of his return back to clay in April. There is likely to be a huge difference in the Nadal we see now to the one we will see in May, to the point where we will essentially be watching two different players. The build up of match tightness, confidence and improved sense of movement will make Nadal much like a prize fighter training up to a prime to peak for a major event - which in this case will be the French Open.

The pressure will be on the likely major contenders to knock Nadal's confidence down early before Roland Garros, if he is allowed to build up his confidence whilst beating his biggest foes, it will be demoralising for those wishing to dethrone his reign as the King of Clay.

Read more from Cheryl at Tennis Talk and from Jay both here on Understated Relevance and on The Overrule.  Follow Cheryl and Jay on Twitter. 

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