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RAFA ROUGHS UP THE REST, ONCE AGAIN THE BEST

Saqib Ali

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Matt Zemek

The truth is more than one reality. Truth encompasses many realities. Multiple truths — including and especially those which seem to contradict each other or at least clash in terms of the impressions they leave upon different people in a room — constantly coexist. These truths don’t cancel each other out; they exist on their own terms and should not be seen as diminishments of the counterpoint which sits beside them.

At the end of the 2018 Monte Carlo Masters, two basic truths coexist — without diminishing the other:

1) Rafael Nadal on clay is the closest thing to “automatic” in tennis. Nothing IS automatic, mind you, but Nadal on red dirt sure makes it seem that way to a degree no other athlete does. (Federer on grass is ALMOST as automatic, but he needed a cluster of tiebreaker wins to mow down the Wimbledon field on the lawns of The All-England Club last summer. TIEBREAKS? Rafa on clay “don’t need no stinkin’ tiebreaks.”)

2) The bottom half of the draw was mediocre this week. Salute Kei Nishikori for fighting his way back from yet another injury and a lack of match play. He should be very proud of the week he produced in Monte Carlo. Yet, let’s not allow our admiration of Nishikori to delude us into thinking that he played top-shelf tennis for most of the week. Whether it was a slightly injured Marin Cilic in the quarterfinals or a scuffling Alexander Zverev (who never served consistently well this week and constantly battled his own form) in the semifinals, Nishikori faced opponents who were not on top of their games. The bottom half was a theater of struggle all week. A player made the final because — as Twitter commentator Andrew Burton reminds us in his #ATPDarkAgeIsComing tweets — “someone had to.” 

Nadal is taking one of the hardest parts of tennis — winning on clay — look ridiculously easy and, moreover, commonplace. Clay, where cheap service points are so much harder to come by, is a surface which demands endless patience, profound stamina, and noticeable resilience. The surface might not be as ruthlessly unforgiving on knee joints the way hardcourts are, but in terms of patiently constructing points, waiting for opportunities, and handling the reality that a good first serve might come back much more often than it does in Cincinnati or at Wimbledon, clay demands more mental resources than hardcourts. Nadal continues to shrug at that reality and make clay victories as drama-free and ordinary as a morning cup of coffee… and not only that, Nadal is now winning clay matches quickly.

In past Nadal romps to victories in Monte Carlo and elsewhere in the clay season, straight-set victories might have required more than two hours (at least 100 minutes). Nadal didn’t need 100 minutes (1 hour and 40 minutes) for any of his wins this week.

The really scary part: This wasn’t even the very best version of Nadal — not all the way through the whole tournament, and not all the way through Sunday’s final against Kei Nishikori. Nadal made a number of routine errors, often on point-finishing shots. It’s why he fell behind by a break and offered Nishikori a brief glimmer of hope early in the first set before the Spaniard revved up the engines and played three dominant games to retake control. Nadal’s flicked down-the-line forehand to the deuce corner made a few appearances midway through the first set when he pulled away, but that shot didn’t remain locked in the whole afternoon. Nadal can play better, but even something slightly less than his best was still more than good enough to win this tournament without playing — or losing — a SINGLE set longer than 10 games.

Even if you think the rest of the field was not very good this week, that’s ridiculously impressive. Even when his shots weren’t clicking, Nadal STILL found the ability to win matches routinely. Not once did he even get pushed to 5-5 in a set. Come on. That is BONKERS. It reflects the extraordinarily lofty standard Nadal has established — and reestablished many times over — on terre battue.

You (read: Federer fans) don’t have to enjoy Nadal destroying fools on clay. You don’t have to think it is a good look for the ATP. (More on that shortly.) Yet, even if this crazy level of dominance reveals flaws in men’s tennis, it still rates as a remarkable reality. Making something difficult look deceptively simple — and then doing it for the 11th time, as Rafa has done in winning an 11th Monte Carlo title — should elicit praise, grudging though it might be from some corners of the tennis community.

Let’s acknowledge how great Nadal’s feats are and let that sink in.

*pregnant pause*

Have we inwardly appreciated Rafa? Good.

Now let’s move on.

The other side of the coin in Monte Carlo is that as rich and extraordinary as Rafa’s achievements in fact are — and as much as they shouldn’t be taken for granted at this point in the Spaniard’s unfathomably dominant clay career — the 2018 field which stood against him did not stand tall at all.

Grigor Dimitrov played nine solid games against Rafa in the first set of Saturday’s semifinal. At no other time did Nadal arrive at the seventh or eighth or ninth game of a set with any slight shred of doubt about his control of a set or match in Monte Carlo this week. All credit to Nishikori for getting this far, but on a purely empirical level, he was not playing well enough to seriously threaten Rafa on Sunday. The bottom half was littered with the almost-men of tennis over varying lengths of time: Tomas Berdych, Andreas Seppi, Fernando Verdasco, Pablo Cuevas, Richard Gasquet, and Lucas Pouille were just some of the names which — true to fashion — raised hopes about their prospects but then fell short of their aspirations. All of those players are or have been talented enough to be threatening players at important tournaments but have failed to cross important thresholds on a consistent basis. 

Nishikori — against a bottom half which was collectively trying (and failing!) to find itself all week — needed three sets to claim four of his five victories in this waterfront tournament. The sets Kei lost were sets in which he played mediocre tennis — it’s not as though opponents soared against him. He rode the struggle bus for large portions of matches; he merely managed his limitations better than his competitors.

Sunday against Rafa, that lack of top-drawer tennis was exposed.

It’s no indictment of Nishikori himself — he vastly exceeded expectations coming into the week and should be very encouraged with his game, especially if his wrist does not feel noticeably weaker. Yet, the larger takeaway from the bottom half of the 2018 Monte Carlo draw is that it was the bottom half of the 2017 U.S. Open all over again, a barren field where someone had to win, but no one stood a good chance of beating Nadal in the final.

Honor and respect Nadal’s achievements, but don’t dismiss how bad the bottom half of the draw was.

Applaud Nishikori’s week, and don’t be critical of him for how he played on Sunday — he was not in a position to threaten Rafa — but don’t conflate that view with the idea that he played “special Kei” tennis this week.

Allow one shining truth — Nadal on clay is a standard of greatness set apart from most runs of dominance in tennis history — to coexist with another truth: The ATP Tour needs to show better quality, not to mention more backbone.

Two competing truths can both exist. They are both important and do not detract from the other.

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Image taken from Zimbio

 

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