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Player of the Month for April 2011: Rafael Nadal

5/04/2011Ang

Player of the Month for April 2011: Rafael Nadal

by: Nima Naderi

It would be hard to imagine Rafael Nadal getting any better on his beloved clay surface going forward. Not losing a match since the fourth-round of the 2009 French Open, the Spaniard improved to 11-0 on the surface this year with a straight set win over Marcos Baghdatis in Madrid on Wednesday. Watched on by Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, Nadal produced some vintage tennis during the routine contest.

Beginning his clay calender with a seventh straight title in Monte Carlo, Nadal once again laid out his intentions for his forthcoming clay campaign. Not winning a title since October, Nadal added to his glory in Monaco by capturing his sixth career crown in Barcelona the very next week. Improving on his form from the Principality, Nadal defeated Davis Cup teammate and tough grinder Ferrer in the championship round.

Perhaps Nadal isn’t as eager to run down as many drop-shots these days, or blaze across the dust filled baseline with the velocity of a few years back, but there’s no denying that the Spaniard is clearly playing smarter tennis in 2011. Saving his body for when he really needs it, Nadal has opted for a more casual way of serving on clay, while using his forehand as the point-ending shot.

Losing one set to an inspired Andy Murray during the semifinals in Monaco, Nadal struggled to a noted degree in the finals against Ferrer, but managed to rely on his stronger weight-of-shot and defense to prevail.

I mentioned last year after the Mallorcan won his second Wimbledon title that he had become the master of playing every point of a Major accordingly. It wasn’t an overstatement by any means; the soon-to-be 25-year-old was really that good. Looping the ball back when he needs to, or flying into the net to swat away a sitting volley, Nadal’s Hall of Fame career over the past 10 years has allowed him to become familiar with nearly every scenario that is imaginable on Tour.

So what’s next for the reigning French Open champ? Can he clean up during the rest of the clay season and even top his own efforts of last year? Winning four titles in succession, Nadal could one up his unbeaten streak in 2010 with a third title in Madrid, a sixth title in Rome, and finally a Borg-tying sixth victory in Paris.

Would I be surprised if Nadal was able to accomplish that feat? No. But do I think that it will be an easy task to accomplish? Not at all. With Djokovic playing the best tennis of his life, and del Potro showing signs of his 2009 level, Nadal will certainly be challenged over the month of May.

However, if there’s a player that was designed for the grind on clay; a player that was born and bread to combat the daily challenges that clay tennis requires, it’s Nadal. Possessing the build and flexibility to spit back the bullets of del Potro, or the sharp angles of Djokovic, Nadal owns the ability to alter the height and spin of his groundstrokes on a constant basis.

Approaching the midway mark of this year’s clay calender, Nadal has once again taken flight toward the record books. Picking up his 500th career win in Barcelona, Nadal will attempt to jump into the double digit category at the Slams in Paris, while adding to his 19 Masters titles in Madrid in Rome.

For some people Nadal’s dominance on clay has become boring. They feel as though there’s no point in watching the sport until it hits the grass in London because it’s a foregone conclusion that the Spaniard will win every event. Well that may be true, and we could see that again this season, but I would never suggest or agree that what Nadal accomplishes from a week-to-week basis during the clay season is boring.

Pictures often do speak a 1000 words, and even if you find yourself bored with the current clay season, and yearning for the lawns of the All England Club, I urge you to take a moment and checkout some still shots of Nadal exploding up into his out-wide left-handed serve, or running into his backhand corner, frozen in time as he destroys a cross-court backhand with precision and accuracy.

That, to me, will never be boring.

Genesis: The Forgotten Matches that Created Champions (Part 1)

by: Jack Hanar

Case 2: Rafael Nadal

Wimbledon 2006 (2R win v. Robert Kendrick; 6-7, 3-6, 7-6,
7-5, 6-4)

Despite coming off a dominating clay court season, culminating in a successful defense of his Roland Garros crown, Rafael Nadal arrived in Wimbledon as no one’s favorite to make much of a dent in the draw, with good reason. At that point the Spaniard hadn’t been much of a factor in Grand Slams outside of the French Open, with losses to Lleyton Hewitt (’05 AO), Gilles Muller (‘05 W) and James Blake (’05 USO) before skipping the 2006 Australian Open with a career-threatening foot injury. Still, going against the nature of his defensive, topspin-reliant game, Nadal proclaimed his love for grass court tennis and announced his intention to triumph at Wimbledon. Most, if heartened by the second seed’s declaration, didn’t share his optimism. After the first round, ESPN’s Brad Gilbert predicted that the King of Clay would be severely challenged in his very next match, a match played against qualifier Robert Kendrick.

On court, the big-serving Californian, ranked 237th in the world, immediately takes control of the match. Targeting Nadal’s loopy forehand wing, Kendrick comes to net at every opportunity, daring the Spaniard to pass him again and again. At 5-4, 30-all in the fourth set, Kendrick is two measly points away from the biggest win of his entire career. Perhaps all of Nadal’s talk about wanting to succeed at SW19 was merely fluff. Perhaps his swashbuckling, stand-behind-the-baseline style could never be molded into a winning game on grass. Perhaps Nadal will never win a Major outside of Paris. The Spaniard is defiant. He steps up to the line, tugs at his shorts, and calmly serves out the game before taking the set in a tiebreak. Suddenly his returns land deeper in the court, his crosscourt passing shots begin dipping down right inside the lines instead of slightly out. Nadal’s endless energy and tenacity wears Kendrick down, then out. Rafa powers his way past the rest of the field, before falling to Federer, simply the better grass court player (at the time) in the finals.

The following year, Nadal survives another 5 set epic, drawn out over 3 rain-delayed days, against Robin Soderling, before once again losing to Federer, this time in 5 sets. Rather than feel let down, slipping at the final hurdle for two straight years only serves to strengthen Nadal’s resolve. As we speak, the man from Mallorca has won each of the four Slams plus the Olympic Gold, but know that this might not have been the case had he not dug deep against a lowly qualifier, almost five years ago.

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