Thursday, July 7, 2022

In Paris, Rafael Nadal is the same as always, and yet he is different

PARIS – His hair is getting thinner at the top. His knees may be shaking. In January, he suddenly came down with a weak back that almost forced him to retire from the Australian Open.

And yet, with his victory on Monday over Italy’s Jannik Sinner, a 19-year-old star, Rafael Nadal rose again to the last eight of the tournament, which he has essentially owned since 2005. It’s just that he owns it in another way than he used to.

Nadal was not perfect Monday in his 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 victory. He was down 5-3 in the first set before winning four straight games. He coughed up a 4-0 lead in the second. But as he has almost always done on clay in Roland Garros, he made all the necessary shots and delighted Sinner around the pitch, as if he had a metal rod inserted in his chest.

“At one point, he was playing and I was just running,” Sinner said.

Nadal has won the French Open 13 times. The French Tennis Federation unveiled a statue of him on the pitch here before the tournament began, a steel abstraction of the last moments of his powerful forehand shot. Monday’s victory was his 104th at Roland Garros.

The victory moved Nadal, who was seeded in third place due to his current placement despite all his success in Paris, closer to a semi-final showdown with Novak Djokovic, world No. 1. Djokovic beat 19-year-old Italian upstart Lorenzo Musetti in one of several bizarre matches in this tournament. Djokovic appeared to be lost in the first two sets, missing his goals and did not characteristically lose two tiebreakers.

He then took a break in the bathroom and returned a stable player who won 12 of the next 13 games to tie the match in two sets each. He won four more games before Musetti retired 4-0 in the fifth set.

But the 35-year-old version of Nadal threatening in the semi-final for Djokovic, 34, is very different from Nadal, who started winning in Paris a long time ago.

At the time, Nadal was a first-order defender. He went after the baseline, chasing every single ball, and especially on the red clay he loves so much, he turned his fights into Roland Garros into a war of attrition.

It was not Nadal that Sinner met on Monday in the last 16, or the Cam, Norrie from Great Britain, encountered in the third round this weekend. Nadal today, who knows that there are only as many five-hour marathon fights as a veteran player can survive, targets speed and efficiency almost as much as victories.

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“Of course I do what I can at any given moment,” he said. “If I can win faster, better.”

Now, several years into this latter period of Nadal dominance on clay, opponents have become accustomed to what to expect, but they still come staggered from the experience.

“It’s amazing how fast he was after his service to find his hand,” Norrie said after his loss. Norrie felt like he was playing pretty well against Nadal, but when he spoke, his eyes seemed to be glazed, as if he had just seen something he could not quite believe. “The guy is relentless.”

Between points, Nadal is as conscious as ever. He sweats profusely and towels off at every opportunity he can handle.

He swears he does not have an obsessive compulsive disorder, but he still has to complete with his series of tics and tasks before the game starts, sweeping lines clean with his foot and hitting his shoes with the racket three times before his first serving to free the soles of clay, bouncing the ball over and over until it feels right in his hand before throwing it.

Once the point starts, however, Nadal has become more relentless with each passing year, especially since 2016, when he began working full-time with Carlos Moya, the retired Spanish player and former world No. 1 who won the French Open in 1998. .

Changes in tennis strategy may seem subtle on the surface, but they can have major effects on the way points, games and matches unfold.

In Nadal’s case, Hawkeye’s laser cameras, which have become more widespread over the past decade, tell hundreds of measurements per second. Second of the ball and the position of the court for each player.

When Sam Maclean, a data analyst with Hawkeye, combed through the numbers, the data showed exactly how Nadal had fine-tuned his playing style in the 30s, became more aggressive and tried to finish points as quickly as possible, though he never becomes someone who finishes many points online.

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Not surprisingly, the change is especially evident during Nadal’s service play when he has the best chance of controlling what happens under the point.

From 2012 to 2016, Nadal hit 30 percent of his first shots after his servings from inside the baseline. But every year he has worked with Moya, this number has increased, first to 36 percent, then to 39 percent, then to 41 percent, and last year to 42 percent.

Why is it so important? Because when Nadal hits the first shot from inside the baseline, he wins 74 percent of the points. When he hits the first shot behind the back line, he wins only 59 percent of the points.

And while Nadal often floats deep into the backcourt when his opponents serve, the points quickly develop into a battle for him to get ahead, to the nub of ties in the middle of the baseline that he previously kicked clean to give himself a goal to spin towards below the point.

Although Nadal gives himself less time to set up by stepping into the lane for the first shot, he still hits the ball back as hard as he always did, averaging about 75 miles per hour, according to Hawkeye, with a hard level of topspin , which makes his ball feel like a rock on his opponent’s racket.

“He’s the only guy who plays like that with his front top spin,” said Richard Gasquet of France, who managed to win just seven matches against Nadal in their second-round match.

Gasquet said it was impossible to prepare for Nadal because there was no one to practice against who even hit the ball as he does. Gasquet is the same age as Nadal and has been playing him since they were teenagers. He spent years in the top 10. He is 0-16 against him in ATP Tour events and the victories are as crucial as ever, even if Nadal should get worse.

“It was really hard for me to play,” Gasquet said after his loss.

Alexei Popyrin from Australia, Nadal’s victim of the first round, was proud to come close to winning a set.

“It’s his court,” Popyrin said after his defeat. “It will always be his court.”

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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