How to beat Nadal on clay
Rafael Nadal did not walk off the court as a beaten man after his first-round match at the French Open. But did he walk off as a beatable man?
He was considered nearly invincible against everyone but Novak Djokovic coming into the tournament, but in his very first match, the seven-time champion found himself in danger of going down two sets to love against the unheralded Daniel Brands before wrestling control of the match in four sets.
Suddenly, the implausible was plausible.
If not for a missed volley by Brands that would have put him up 4-2 in the second-set tiebreak, Nadal might have been in his deepest hole ever at the start of a French Open match (he has never lost the first two sets of a match at this tournament). And against a streaking opponent, that would have been "more than a problem," as Nadal put it.
Onlookers watched, transfixed, as Brands belted ball after ball past Nadal. Minds flashed back to other times the Spaniard has been in this kind of trouble on Court Philippe Chatrier, which are so few they are easy to recall -- Robin Soderling in 2009, the only match Nadal has ever lost at the French Open, and John Isner in 2011, the only five-setter he has played at this event. It also triggered memories of other recent occasions when Nadal has been thoroughly dictated to on the court -- his defeat to Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon last year, and a three-setter against Ernests Gulbis in Rome a couple of weeks ago.
Line all those players and performances up, and a pattern starts to emerge -- a magic formula for beating Nadal?
If it was, Brands was trying to follow it.
"He had a fantastic tactic," Nadal told reporters in Spanish. "I think that he arrived on the court completely decided upon striking all the balls, 100 percent, and he was inspired today."
Brands felt he had no choice.
"I think if you play against Rafa you have to play aggressive from the beginning," he said afterward.
"But," he added, "I think that's really exhausting."
For those willing to give it a try, however, there's a six-step process Brands & Co. seem to have followed.
1. Be tall
This can't exactly be ordered on command -- "you can't teach 6-10," as Andy Roddick was fond of saying. But get out the measuring tape -- Isner is at least 6-foot-9, Brands 6-5, Rosol 6-5, Soderling 6-4 and Gulbis 6-3.
The height helps with handling Nadal's high-bouncing topspin, which kicks up especially high on this surface. While most players have to deal with the ball somewhere near shoulder height, the taller guys find it closer to their strike zone and can more easily hit at it.
Particularly striking was the way Brands was able to do it off his one-handed backhand. Nadal has an overwhelming record against players with that stroke -- think Roger Federer -- but even though it is Brands' weaker wing, the beanpole German was able to get the ball at a comfortable height and take some big cuts.
2. Have an unthreatening ranking
Brands is No. 59. Rosol was No. 100 when he defeated Nadal, and Isner was No. 39 when he played the Spaniard and without much of a reputation on clay (yet). Soderling was more of a known quantity, but he had just lost to Nadal 6-0, 6-1 a couple of weeks before pulling off his big upset. Even the climbing Gulbis remains No. 40, though Nadal is well aware of how dangerous he can be.
Toni Nadal, Rafa's coach and uncle, admitted afterward that neither was that familiar with Brands before the match, and Rafa expressed surprise that Brands was ranked around the No. 60 mark.
"The way he played, I just don't believe it," he said in Spanish.
Does it matter? Perhaps.
When playing someone like Novak Djokovic, Nadal knows he must step up and play aggressively and he comes out prepared to do so. Against less-threatening players, he is more inclined to give in to his instincts and start out playing more defensively, giving the other player an opportunity to make an impact.
3. Have a lot of power
All these players who have unexpectedly troubled Nadal have a big serve and forehand. Being able to win a lot of free points on serve and hit hard off the ground means being able to take charge of points, particularly with Nadal frequently so far behind the baseline these days, especially on the return.
4. Hit every ball as hard as possible
That ability must also be used. Anyone who fits the three descriptions above probably isn't a very steady player, and must look to finish points quickly rather than get into long, drawn-out rallies with Nadal.
Going big on every shot is risky, but even if it leads to losing quickly, the result isn't that different from losing slowly.
5. Rush him
Whether it's standing on the baseline belting the ball, angling the ball wide, drilling it back at Nadal or going to net, keeping him from getting in a groove can produce hesitant play and more unforced errors.
Against Brands, Nadal even slipped occasionally trying to keep up with the pace.
"I was trying to hit ... with a lot of pressure to break his rhythm. I did it quite well until the third set," said Brands.
Nadal agreed. "I think that I didn't have the [chances] to play because he was trying to hit every ball as hard as he can," said the Spaniard. "There is not one ball that I felt that I had the time, 'Well, I'm going to prepare, I'm going to play a point that I'm going to hit one ball here, one ball here, one ball here.' I didn't have that chance during the whole match."
6. Pull it off for three sets
This, of course, is the hard part, and Brands didn't manage it.
Next up is Martin Klizan, a 6-2 lefthander but another lean, quirky player with a big forehand. He shot up the rankings last year and it appears he might want to shake Nadal up a little. Can Klizan try it? Will he?
Either way, Nadal knows how hard it will be.
"When you play at that level, when you know you've got very little to lose and you have decided to attack and throwing yourself into it 100 percent with each ball -- I reiterate this point, every ball -- well, you're taking a risk," he said.
There is little room for error, and on top of that, Nadal's ability to get the ball back and his intensity on every point mean having to do it until the very end. That's why only one player, Soderling, has managed it at the French Open. Rosol did it at Wimbledon with 10 straight winners in his last three service games, including seven aces. And both got a bit of an assist from Nadal not being at full strength.
Brands hit 51 winners and made 53 unforced errors, a respectable ratio but not enough. In Rome, Gulbis hit 59 winners and 50 unforced errors -- still not enough.
These matches make Nadal seem beatable, yet also show that he takes some beating.
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