Agitated Nadal on the fringe of No.1 ranking
Despite winning the Toronto Masters, Rafael Nadal was devoid of head-shaking winners and played with a heightened twitchiness -- an indication the prospect of reaching No. 1 may be getting to him.
One obvious and crucial question needed to be asked during the Rogers Masters last week: Just how twitchy can a No. 1 men's player be?
We've gotten used to our recent long-term No. 1s, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, facing each point with loose limbs and a laid-back focus. The ability to cruise through matches and tournaments without worrying much about the outcome of any one point has seemed to be the key to living with the pressures of that unique position. In Toronto, though, we were suddenly faced with the prospect of a new No. 1 who is, well, something less than laid back.
Rafael Nadal was, relatively speaking, more agitated than usual last week. He was demonstrably angry at himself, he argued a few calls, and he was more verbal than usual -- this is all pretty unusual for a guy who usually plays in a fierce competitive trance. Near the end of his semifinal with Andy Murray, Nadal had one of the most unbridled reactions to a winning point that I've seen from him. Literally: he shook his head back and forth violently, like a horse trying to shake off his reins.
Was this stress from trying to make the final push over the top to No. 1? Or was it because Nadal wasn't playing quite as well as he had at Wimbledon, Queen's and the French Open, wasn't dominating from the first games of matches? Most commentators seemed to think it was the former, and I'm sure there was an element of that, especially after Roger Federer lost. Suddenly Rafa was all alone out there, the favorite in a hard-court Masters event. But I think Nadal's relative agitation, his heightened twitchiness, stemmed from the fact that, as well as he performed -- and it was as well as anyone could have expected -- he also came down to earth just a bit last week.
It was most noticeable on his backhand side. I had been particularly impressed with the way Nadal had hit that shot at Wimbledon. He stayed down and through it more than he ever had, and got a savage amount of topspin on it on passing shots. In Toronto, he didn't look quite as comfortable with that stroke. Instead of ripping his passes with abandon, he sent more slices floating back to midcourt. He also seemed to work to find his footing on his backhand during rallies. On balls that come in high and move Nadal back on that side, he has a tendency to hit off his back foot and rely on his arms to loop the ball into the vicinity of the service line. I don't know why this happens to him more on hard courts than it does on grass; I even noticed it when he was practicing at Indian Wells this spring.
While Nadal was less spectacular and more workmanlike during much of his time in Toronto, his title there was one of the most impressive of his career. This was the win of a No. 1. He didn't always play his best, he didn't roll through his opponents, he didn't crack nearly as many mind-bending winners as we saw him hit at Wimbledon. So what did he do? He used touch shots as lavishly and effectively as he does on clay -- which could be a key to his future on this surface. He also used his serve -- into the forehand, into the body, with serious pace on the first ball and a tricky kick on the second -- much the way a big server does, as a bailout weapon. This will be an even bigger key to Nadal's U.S. Open success, particularly if he can't raise his backhand level to where it was at Wimbledon. Finally, he did what he always does: Up 5-3 in the first set of the final against Nicolas Kiefer but down 15-40 on the German's serve, he didn't throw away a point and wait to serve it out. Instead Nadal maintained his intensity and ended up breaking to end the set -- beats serving it out, right? It's these stray points that Nadal collects that end up making life just a little easier for him.
But as much as any of these assets, it was Nadal's -- should I say it again? -- aura, carried across the Atlantic, that continued to serve him well at all the right moments. Both Richard Gasquet and Murray seemed to believe they could play with Nadal, right up until the point where they proved they could. In other words, that was all they believed. In the quarters, Gasquet showed more emotion than he has since his win over Andy Roddick at Wimbledon in 2007 in winning the first set, 14-12 in a tiebreaker for the ages. But that was all he could conceive mentally, and all he could pull off physically, as Nadal took a step back and dared Gasquet to win another set with his head-shaking winners. Like Novak Djokovic in Hamburg and Ernests Gulbis at Wimbledon, the Frenchman couldn't do it.
Murray, it seemed to me, was closer to beating Nadal than Gasquet, even though he lost in straight sets. The Scot, keeping his focus (and his teeth to himself), threw all he had at the Spaniard. But he made two telling mistakes. Even as he was playing fabulous tennis, Murray asked the chair umpire to call the trainer before Nadal served at 5-6 in the first set. The umpire talked him out of it and Murray subsequently reverted to form, using his injury as a mental excuse for his loss in the tiebreaker -- it gave him an out. In the second set, I felt like Murray pulled the trigger too soon on his forehand on important points. Murray's strategy had been to bring it to Nadal from that side rather than rallying passively, as he had at Wimbledon. But instead of waiting to put himself into an offensive position before letting loose, Murray let it fly from the baseline. While ESPN's Darren Cahill called these "good misses," it's too risky a play against Nadal. Murray caught the tape way too often for this to be considered the right tactic. So why did he do it? I would say it's that No. 1 aura. As it always has with Federer, it forces guys to try just a little too much. Cracking clean, spectacular winners -- better shots than they would ever attempt against anyone else -- was the only way that Gasquet, Murray and Kiefer could imagine beating Nadal. That's just how you want your opponents to think.
This was a No. 1 performance, which leads me back to my original question: Is there a place at the top for a twitchy and perhaps more agitated Rafael Nadal? Recent history says it might not be a long-term thing, but let's look back further. I recently said that John McEnroe, as twitchy a player as any in history -- he grabbed his shirt in the middle of points -- had been more of a rebel than a ruler, and I wondered if Nadal might suffer the same fate. Well, Rafa should hope so. Turns out that the left-handed, ever-agitated rebel wasn't such an ineffectual king after all. Johnny Mac finished No. 1 in the world for four straight years.
Stephen Tignor is the executive editor for Tennis magazine.
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