At Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal is always the same, and yet he is different
PARIS – Her hair is lightening on the top. His knees may tremble. In January, he suddenly fell with a hesitant back that almost forced him to withdraw from the Australian Open.
And yet, with his victory on Monday over 19-year-old rising star Italian Jannik Sinner, Rafael Nadal once again climbed into the last eight of the tournament he has essentially owned since 2005. It’s just that he owns it in a different way than he used to do.
Nadal was not perfect on Monday in his 7-5, 6-3, 6-0 victory. He lost 5-3 in the first set before winning four straight games. He took a 4-0 lead in the second. But as he almost always did on clay at Roland Garros, he made all the necessary shots, joystick Sinner around the court as if he had a metal rod inserted into his chest.
“At one point he was playing and I was just running,” Sinner said.
Nadal has won Roland-Garros 13 times. The French Tennis Federation unveiled a statue of him on the pitch ahead of the tournament’s start, a steel abstraction of the last moments of his mighty forehand. Monday’s victory was his 104th at Roland Garros.
The victory brought Nadal, seeded third due to his current ranking despite all his successes in Paris, closer to a semi-final showdown with world No.1 Novak Djokovic. Djokovic beat 19-year-old Italian Lorenzo Musetti in one of the more bizarre matches of this tournament. Djokovic appeared to be lost for the first two sets, missing his targets and unusually abandoning two tiebreakers.
Then he took a break in the bathroom and made a player stable, winning 12 of the next 13 games to tie the game off in straight sets apiece. He won four more games before Musetti retired 4-0 in the fifth set.
But the 35-year-old version of Nadal looming in the semifinals for 34-year-old Djokovic is very different from Nadal who started winning in Paris a long time ago.
At the time, Nadal was a top defender. He curled up behind the baseline, chased every ball and, especially on the red clay he loves so much, turned his matches at Roland Garros into wars of attrition.
It wasn’t the Nadal Sinner met on Monday in the round of 16, nor the one Cam Norrie of Great Britain met in the third round this weekend. Today’s Nadal, who knows there are only a limited number of five-hour marathon games a veteran player can survive, aims for speed and efficiency almost as much as wins.
“I do what I can at all times of course,” he said. “If I can win faster, better.”
By now, several years after the start of this last era of Nadal’s dominance on clay, opponents have grown used to what to expect, but they still come away stunned at the experience.
“It’s amazing how quick he was after his serve to find his forehand,” Norrie said after the loss. Norrie felt like he was playing pretty well against Nadal, but as he spoke his eyes looked glassy, as if he had just seen something he couldn’t really believe. “The guy is relentless.
Between the points, Nadal is always so deliberate. He sweats profusely and wipes himself off whenever he can handle it.
He swears he doesn’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he still has to complete his series of tics and tasks before the game begins, sweeping the lines with his foot, hitting his shoes with his racquet three times before his first serve to free the soles from the clay, bouncing the ball over and over again until it’s right in his hand before throwing it.
Once the point begins however, Nadal has grown more relentless year on year, especially since 2016 when he started working full time with Carlos Moya, the retired Spain player and former world No.1 who has won Roland-Garros in 1998.
Changes in tennis strategy may seem subtle at first glance, but they can have disproportionate effects on the course of points, games and matches.
In Nadal’s case, Hawkeye’s laser cameras, which have become more prevalent over the past decade and take hundreds of measurements per second of each player’s ball and field position, tell the story.
When Sam Maclean, a data analyst at Hawkeye, combed through the numbers, the data showed exactly how Nadal had honed his style of play in his 30s, becoming more aggressive and trying to finish the points as quickly as possible, even if it never will be. someone who finishes a lot of points at the net.
Unsurprisingly, the change is especially noticeable in Nadal’s service matches, when he has the best chance of controlling what happens during the point.
From 2012 to 2016, Nadal made 30% of his first shots after serving from inside the baseline. But every year he worked with Moya, that number grew, first to 36%, then to 39%, then to 41% and last year to 42%.
Why is this so important? Because when Nadal hits that first shot from inside the baseline he wins 74% of the points. When he hits the first shot behind the baseline, he only wins 59% of the points.
And while Nadal often drifts deep into the backcourt when his opponents are serving, the points quickly evolve into a fight for him to advance, until that piece of duct tape in the middle of the baseline that he previously gave away. a clean kick to give yourself a target to rush towards during the point.
Even though Nadal gives himself less time to settle down by entering the field for that first shot, he still hits the ball as hard as he always has, averaging around 75 miles an hour, according to Hawkeye. , with a fierce level of topspin that makes his ball feel like a rock on the racquets of his opponents.
“He’s the only guy who plays like that with his topspin forehand,” said Frenchman Richard Gasquet, who only managed to win seven games against Nadal in his second round match.
Gasquet said it was impossible to prepare for Nadal as there was no one to train against who kicks the ball even from a distance like he does. Gasquet is the same age as Nadal and has been playing him since they were teenagers. He has spent years in the top 10. He is 0-16 against him in ATP Tour events, and the wins are more decisive than ever, although Nadal is expected to deteriorate.
“It was really difficult for me to play,” said Gasquet after his loss.
Alexei Popyrin of Australia, the first round victim of Nadal, was proud to have come close to winning a set.
“This is his backyard,” Popyrin said after his loss. “It will always be his court.