by Saqib Ali
Rafael Nadal and David Goffin were both victorious in respective ATP 500 events in Beijing and Tokyo last week. Both men were playing with the confidence of men who had won recent titles. However, it was not the case before their previous titles. Nadal — prior to winning the U.S. Open this year — had not tasted hardcourt success for almost four years. His last title came in Doha in the beginning of the 2014 season. Goffin had last won a title on any surface in Metz, France in 2014. That’s where the similarities of these droughts end.
Nadal has been a busy man of late — he played the Laver Cup in Prague two weeks ago and then competed in the Beijing 500 last week as he has for the last few years. Nadal came through a very rough draw in Beijing. The matchups materialized but he still delivered throughout the week to eventually lift his 75th trophy. This title was the punctuation mark following his U.S. Open win. He sat comfortably with a 1,800-ranking point lead over rival and world number two Roger Federer. Nadal could have skipped this event and still would have been in great position to finish the year at number one. He probably has a contract to play the event but also did not want to take any chance to squander the ranking to Federer, who usually outperforms Nadal in the last leg of the season.
The move seemed to work — now he has extended the gap to 2,300 points over Federer. One could argue a similar move failed for Federer when he entered Montreal earlier this year. Mathematically it is still possible for Federer to finish the year as the top player, but a lot has to go right for him and Nadal has to lose early in the remaining events. One thing is certain: The year-end number one ranking would mean the world to both at this stage of their careers. Federer, the visionary that he is, would not jeopardize his health and chances of starting the year strongly by overplaying. He may not play Bercy if he played full weeks in Shanghai and Basel. That is pure speculation from my end, but worth considering.
It will be an incomplete account of Nadal’s Beijing title run if Lucas Pouille was not mentioned. Lot of times players make their luck or simply get better if they survive a match they could have lost. The Nadal-Pouille match produced quite the storyline for the rest of the week.
Many times in the early rounds the top players run into a player who is either in a zone or playing high-risk tennis, which results in an upset. Best-of-three tennis is more conducive for upsets. Pouille, who had won their only previous meeting, was playing a very aggressive brand of tennis. Nadal was not playing great by any means and it looked like a certain exit in the first round when Pouille had two match points, one on his serve, in the second set tiebreak. He missed a shot on the first match point which he normally would make 9 out of 10 times. He netted a short forehand from a winning position on the court. He squandered the next match point as well before losing the tiebreak, 8-6. He eventually lost the match in the third set when Nadal broke him for the first time in the penultimate game, at 5-5..
This was not the first time Nadal had come back from being match point down in his illustrious career. He knew that he had dodged a certain bullet. His play got better and his confidence and focus got him the much coveted title. Sometimes the stats are misleading — not winning a hardcourt title for so long was a stat he needed to put a rest to. He did that in New York, and Beijing showed how that winning feeling has carried into the autumnal portion of the tennis season.
Of course the margins are slim at the top of the game and expectations are huge for all the leading men. That’s the reason Nadal’s eight final losses since winning the Doha title were magnified. What gets lost in this tale is that only one loss from those matches was to Sam Querrey (in Acapulco) this year. Other final losses were to Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka. In hindsight the Wawrinka loss does not stand out as a bad loss due to the stature Stan has attained. Losing to Djokovic and Federer on hardcourts are not bad losses even if you are Rafa Nadal. This is the same as if Federer lost six clay finals to Djokovic and Nadal over a period of four years. Will we complain about his losses or say he made six clay finals on major occasions?
As for Pouille, he was on a three-match losing streak before he took the court against Nadal. He seemed rushed throughout the match even though he was dictating the proceedings throughout the evening. It happens all the time in a long season: Each player is going through memories of recent matches. As a result, those players — doubting themselves and their abilities — make routine mistakes in key moments. Pouille was also rattled by the injury timeout of Diego Schwartzman at the U.S. Open. He seems to rush between points when his game is not firing. It’s always easy to do a postmortem in sports — you have seen the movie and can give a verdict on what just happened.
Pouille failed to earn a second look at Nadal in as many weeks — they were both in the same section in Shanghai. Pouille would rather take a loss where he is dominated by Nadal than a match where he falters after playing better tennis. Beatdowns are easier to get over mentally than the type of match Pouille lost to Nadal in Beijing. Pouille’s early Shanghai exit to Fabio Fognini proves as much.
Goffin, unlike Nadal, was playing his second tournament in a row. He won his second title in a row and dropped only one set on the way to the second title in Tokyo after winning Shenzhen a week earlier. Backing up a title with a second winning week is a tall task on both the ATP and WTA Tours. Not many players are used to paying deep two weeks in a row. It takes a lot out of a player physically and emotionally anytime s/he wins a title.
Goffin was more impressive in Tokyo. He survived a close call against Aussie Matt Ebden in the second round before he advanced with more conviction as the week progressed. His win has put him in the seventh spot for the exclusive year-end finale at the O2 Arena in London. He could pay the price of overplaying in Shanghai — his body must be aching after winning nine matches in 14 days. An early loss could be a blessing in disguise, since he will be favored to win his home tournament in Antwerp the following week.
This could be the platform of something big for Goffin next year. He is also scheduled to compete for the Davis Cup title in December. Goffin has always been grouped with Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov as part of the generation of tennis players whose time was sandwiched between the Big Four and the next gen. He may lack the big serve of Milos Raonic or the shotmaking of Grigor Dimitrov, but right now he is the man with the momentum from that generation of players. His best chance to win a major may be at Roland Garros. Securing a higher ranking will give him the chance to avoid playing too many great players in back-to-back matches. Only time will tell how far Goffin will go next year in big events – all he is focused on right now is to have a great finish to the year. It looks like he has a legitimate shot to end the year on a career high.