If you are a fan of clay tennis, or really just tennis for that matter, you had to be impressed with the show Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal put on today in Hamburg. It was billed as a battle for No. 2, and a battle of the two best players this year, and it lived up to the hype in my mind. Good tennis all around by both guys in what I thought was the best clay match of the season thus far. And in the end Nadal was just too damn good, beating a game Djokovic 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 to maintain his No. 2 ranking and advance to the Hamburg final where awaiting him tomorrow will be the well-rested World No. 1 Roger Federer.
Credit to Djokovic who threw just about everything he had at Rafa, but the Spaniard chewed it up and spit it back out especially in a pretty high quality first set.
Rafa had chances to runaway with the second set and the match but couldn’t covert some early second set break points. Djokovic hung tough and eventually grabbed the second. But in the third Rafa regained his control eventually wearing down the Serb in just over three hours of top notch tennis.
As I’ve said before Djokovic, in my mind, is the guy with the best chance of derailing Nadal on the clay at Roland Garros where he’s unbeaten. And I think today Novak showed some of that ability and some of what he can do to Rafa. Djokovic has the lethal mixture of power, consistency and variety. I do still question his mental toughness and his durability, but what he does have can at least get him into a winning position against Rafael, which is more than can be said for just about everyone else on the circuit.
Against Rafa you cannot slug it out from the baseline and expect to come out in front on clay. You have to move forward and make Rafa moved forward and I thought Novak did a good job of doing that today.
But Nadal’s just so tough on clay. He might have the worst attire in the history of the sport, but his forehand’s massive. His backhand doesn’t miss. His serve is improving. It’s virtually impossible to hit a ball by him from the backcourt and he’s probably the mentally toughest guy out there.
So, yes, Rafa’s still the man…
As the commentators said the happiest guy in the building has to be Federer, who has virtually waltzed into the Hamburg final after beating a hapless and tired Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-1 in his semifinal earlier.
Through four matches no one has even won more than three games off Fed in any single set, which is pretty impressive. But Nadal’s a huge step up in class from the players Fed’s beaten this far.
Federer of course upset Nadal last year in this same final and I think he’ll again have a good chance of repeating that effort Sunday. Federer clearly plays his best clay tennis in Hamburg, where the cooler, damper conditions can turn the surface into a virtual super-slow hard court, perfect for Federer. But even though Nadal may very well be feeling some after effects of his physical win over Novak, it’s still hard to bet against the Spaniard tomorrow and at this stage, regardless of the outcome in the final, it’s that much harder to foresee anyone taking three sets from him at Roland Garros. Fortunately, though, with Novak’s loss today, Federer won’t have to face such a tall task until the French Open final at the earliest.
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