Restoration on Clay: Rafa Nadal Dominates on Road Back to French Open

Spanish tennis player Rafael Nadal returns a ball to Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic during their ATP Madrid Open semifinal match in Madrid, on May 13, 2017

Rafael Nadal took his fifth Madrid Open trophy on Sunday, continuing his campaign to regain his title as King of Clay.

Dominic Thiem gave the Spanish champ a hard time in the first set of the final, taking him to an extended tiebreak, and resisted well in the last game of the second set, which went nearly ten minutes before Nadal was able to convert the ad point.

His dominance has not been in doubt since he took the Monte Carlo Masters for the tenth time a few weeks ago.

Thiem can take some comfort from the fact that the score, 7-6, 6-4, is an improvement over the 6-4, 6-1 drubbing that he took at the Barcelona final April 30. Moreover, it was more competitive than the semi-final, in which Nadal rolled over Novak Djokovic. The Serb’s slump since winning last year’s French Open continues. On the other hand, the match of the tournament was the quarter-final opposing Nadal to David Goffin. Though he took it in straight sets, Nadal found himself pushed to the limit, trading astonishing shots with the Belgian whom he repeatedly saluted by clapping his racquet.

Nadal’s return to mastery on clay is one half of the big news on the men’s tour this year. The other half is that his old friend and rival, Roger Federer, has been making a comeback no less spectacular. Federer beat Nadal at the Australian Open, then beat him at Indian Wells, and topped it off with yet another win over him at the Miami Open final.

Federer decided to rest during the clay season, and has not yet confirmed that he will compete at the French Open or keep his focus on Wimbledon, which follows by a few weeks. He took six months off last year following a loss at Wimbledon and knee surgery, and he has stated that, at 35, family and health take priority over the number of tournaments he plays. The philosophy has proved excellent so far: he has been as unbeatable on hard surfaces as Nadal has been on clay.

The return of the two best players of the century’s first decade has been remarkable, as both seemed heading for a slow fadeout, graceful in the Swiss’s case, stubborn in the Spaniard’s. This year they have won all the major tournaments, the slam and the Masters, that have been played so far. Their relentlessness leaves little doubt how they feel about their sport.

Their comebacks are characteristic. Federer has adapted his game, re-inventing his backhand shot to counter the big hitters – including Nadal – who had learned its weakness. Nadal has returned to the furia that always marked him, chasing down impossible shots and returning them with the kind of power and placement, from either wing, that leaves his opponents shaking their heads in disbelief. In the seventh game of the second set against Goffin at Madrid, Nadal needed five tries to finally get the break, and he never relented until he got it. It was classic Nadal, catching what looked like a sure winner by racing across the court and returning it with a backhand down the line. Goffin paused to scratch his head before laughing and giving Nadal a thumb’s up.

The likely restoration of clay’s king is not exactly a counter-revolution: the much vaunted “next-gen,” of which Thiem and Goffin are leading members, had scarcely pulled off a coup, as Djokovic and Andy Murray, who remain No. 2 and 1 going toward Paris (with a stop a Rome this week), filled the vacuum while Federer and Nadal went into what, for them, was a brief semi-retirement. In fact, the ATP is staging “nex-gen” events, which may or may not be good marketing but smacks of consolation tournaments, not to say Little League.

The big league is where as long as you don’t quit, you win.


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