article wimbledon2011

Nadal shuts out the past


 [article before the final]

From the Sunday Times via Barry Flatman

Nadal shuts out the past
The defending champion will ignore recent losses to Djokovic as he bids for a third Wimbledon title this afternoon

As an evening chill settled on Wimbledon, the indecision of Toni Nadal became almost comical. Three times he took off his sweatshirt and then decided things were a little too cool and pulled it on again. Yet if the coach, mentor and controller of the defending champion couldn’t make up his mind with his own attire, he was insistent on his nephew’s impending task.

Ever since Rafael Nadal left Centre Court on Friday after again emphasising his big-match dominance over Andy Murray, the focus has been switched to addressing the task of putting Novak Djokovic’s four final victories against the Spaniard into context before another confrontation today with the prize far more prestigious.

One thing Uncle Toni cannot control is how his nephew answers questions, but undeniably there was a hint of derision as he heard what has been said about the 28th encounter between the new world No 1 and the player he will officially dethrone after a 57-week tenure of top spot on the ATP World Tour rankings. “Nole’s [Djokovic] mental position over me is probably a little bit better because he won the last four finals against me,” said the top seed, who has suffered seven defeats so far this year compared to Djokovic’s one, but is unbeaten in his last 20 matches at Wimbledon. “All I can say is I will try my best. I have to play aggressive. I have to play with intensity, with rhythm.”

There was no denying that the expression on Nadal’s face had grown ever more frustrated and concerned with each Masters 1000 series trophy Djokovic lifted in his triumphant march through the early months of 2011. First there was Indian Wells and then Miami on American cement, which went some way to redressing the balance of last year’s US Open triumph for the Spaniard. But Madrid and Rome on Nadal’s banker surface of clay, now that was altogether a different matter.

More so than ever before, Nadal's game throughout the fortnight has appeared in perfect harmony with the demands of grass “What I will tell Rafael over and over again before he walks out on Sunday is that those matches are in the past and gone,” said Toni. “There is nothing he can do to change anything and so there is no point in concerning himself by concentrating on them. Since then we have again experienced the joy of winning Roland Garros and now we are here at Wimbledon with 20 wins in a row. They are things that Rafael must have in his illusion, not losing the four finals, which are finished.”

The Nadals are tight-knit. Regularly turning away to take counsel in the Mallorquin dialect of Spanish from his brother and Rafa’s father, Sebastian, Toni continued: “I will talk to you about the four finals but I do not intend to speak of them with Rafael. What is the benefit? He knew what he did wrong at the time and we don’t need to return to those days.

“At Indian Wells Rafael was better in the first set but did not have too good a mentality as the match got older, but it was understandable as that tournament was his first after getting injured with his leg at the Australian Open. After that Miami was very close and was just a matter of one or two points. Madrid and then Rome were different: Nole’s mentality from the unbeaten run he was enjoying was a great boost and he showed us what he could do on clay.”

By common consent, Djokovic’s form throughout Wimbledon has been less dominant, but not a word of criticism is forthcoming from Team Nadal. By the same token, nobody other than Rafael himself is voicing any praise for what the Serb has achieved to reach his first final at the All England Club after twice falling at the semi-final stage.

When it comes to experience at this advanced stage on the grass of London SW19, Nadal has a massive advantage. This will be his fifth final in six years and he was forced to miss the 2009 event because of injury, so denying him the only previous opportunity to defend this title. More so than ever before, his game throughout the past fortnight has appeared in perfect harmony with the demands of grass.

Whether he would have been so dominant a couple of decades ago, when serve was far more dominant, the bounce was lower and pace rather than weight of shot was paramount, is another argument that has no validity in a Nadal mind.

What is certain is that while the hallmarks of the Nadal game are power and almost superhuman physicality, there is also wondrous touch and an increasing ability to apply that bygone art of playing serve and volley tennis when the opportunity presents itself. The Spaniard happily goes through the gears imparting spin and slice before delivering the killer blow with sheer strength.

Against Murray in the semi-final, Nadal’s scarcity in terms of unforced errors committed in the final three sets could only be described as mean-spirited. He gave almost nothing to the Scot, with not a solitary unforced error in the second set, just two in the third and one in the concluding fourth.

“We have to have a look about the statistics, but not everything is statistics, no?” Nadal asked in his characteristic questioning manner. “The important thing for me is that I am again playing the Wimbledon final for the fifth time. I never thought this was going to happen for me on the grass. I think is a great effort because for years there was no Spaniard playing the later stages here and many of the players from my country didn’t even come to play the tournament.”

In the same resigned way that Nadal’s Spanish predecessors such as Sergi Bruguera, Alex Corretja, Albert Costa, Alberto Berasategui and even fellow Majorcan Carlos Moya would habitually book their summer vacation during the final week of June and first of July, common consensus decreed that the feats of Bjorn Borg in winning back-to-back French Open and Wimbledon titles would never again be repeated.

If Nadal today claims his 11th Grand Slam title, he will be only 29 days older than Borg when the Swede became the youngest player to amass such numbers. Fittingly the one-time Ice Man will be in the Royal Box today.

“To do what Rafa does, winning on grass, you need to play on clay and do well, physically and mentally,” insisted a magnanimous Borg. “You need to play a lot of tournaments and be so physically and mentally tough. My message to Rafa at this stage would be ‘Don’t change anything; why should you?’.

“All you need to do is go out and hit the ball the same way you did on clay. You have played the tough matches, you are mentally and physically ready. Admittedly the grass is slower today than when I played but that plays into Rafa’s hands.

“I think Rafa is the same as me, which is refreshing in a way. He is hardened on the Roland Garros clay, so when he moves to grass, he takes that match toughness with him.”

Uncle Toni would certainly subscribe to such a point of view, seeing it as far more pertinent than the small matter of those four final victories for Novak Djokovic.

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