Despite the nonstop arguments about who’s greater between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, it looks like Nadal has finally reached “Roger Federer” Status. This means that, no matter how he loses, there are at least 500,000 reasons, excuses, and explanations for why it wasn’t a big deal and it was his own fault (or not his fault at all).
Last night, Nadal lost to Ivan Dodig of Croatia 1-6 7-6(5) 7-6(5) blowing multiple leads in the second and third sets. The reality is this has happened to everyone who’s ever played tennis on any kind of regular basis. However, for the longest time it seemed like Nadal was absolutely immune to these kinds of lapses. There was the two sets to love lead he lost against Federer back in 2005 before he had even come close to a grand slam semifinal. But Nadal is one of the greatest front runners in the history of our sport. Think about how often we’re all surprised when he loses a match in which he won the first set!
But this was far worse than that. He was up a set and a break. Then he was up a break in the third set. Then he served for the match and STILL squandered it! Quite frankly, this is probably one of the most identical parallels in tennis I’ve ever seen when comparing it to 2008 when Federer blew, I believe, just as many leads to Gilles Simon in the opening round of the Roger’s Cup after the “Greatest Match of All Time.” The only noticeable difference is there were no tiebreakers in that match.
The reason Nadal and his fans tend to be so quick to jump to an injury excuse is because when Nadal is playing his best and is most healthy, he seems unbeatable. He gets to everything and returns it with extra pace, his forehand is one of the greatest of all time, his backhand has become a huge weapon (especially on faster surfaces) and he no longer spins in all of his serves. Plus his volleys are easily in the top five best volleys on tour. He’s the complete package and then some. (Sound familiar?)
Then Novak Djokovic popped up (sort of) and found ways to not only beat Nadal, but to really thump him. But that’s Djokovic, the current number one player in the world. Dodig is ranked 41. Surely there’s nothing he can do that’ll overwhelm Nadal. Big serving will only get you so far against the current Nadal, he’s been dealing with them and figuring them out for years now. But what Dodig did that most players don’t, that Djokovic has been doing, is hit through Nadal’s heaviest shots.
Usually, Nadal’s top spin really pushes players back and off the court and forces them to slicing and giving Nadal the easy put away. Djokovic, with his amazing retrieving, has enough time to get to the ball and hit through it rather than slicing, forcing Nadal to rethink his strategy during the point. Dodig was doing the same thing last night. He didn’t allow himself to be overwhelmed by the top spin and even when he was five meters behind the baseline, he would hit through the ball and maintain at least an equal amount of control in the rallies as Nadal. A great example of this would be match point where Nadal was standing on top of the baseline pummeling forehands but Dodig would not give up his ground and simply bashed the ball right back to Nadal until something came up even a little short.
Nadal fans are talking about Nadal not trusting his game and his serve and this and that but a huge problem for other players has, in fact, been trusting themselves to make those shots that would put them in an advantageous position. Djokovic trusts himself against Nadal (and everyone else) and last night Dodig trusted himself and it paid off. The big difference is that, maybe for the first time, the guy ranked 41 in the world trusted his ground strokes enough to score the most improbable win over Nadal. It really looks like Djokovic has shown everyone a strategy that can work time and time again. (Sound way too familiar)? And for that reason alone, Nadal should be very worried about this loss.
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