Home       About Tom Perrotta       Contact        RSS Categories       Archive
<<  Meet the New Boss Day 2 Notebook: Hotter Still  >>

Late Night Massacre 01/20/2009 - 7:56 AM

Nadal It's a beautiful Melbourne evening: A light breeze, dry air (which feels almost like fall air after the 105-degree high of this afternoon) and lots of happy Aussies inside Rod Laver Arena. It's one big party in here--a party at the expense of Christophe Rochus, the small Belgian with miserable luck who must lose to Rafael Nadal tonight. First-round matches in majors often lack suspense, especially when the top seed plays a part. But so far, this one is more than a drubbing. It's like watching a man being fed to a lion, except I have a wireless connection and a very comfortable seat (I imagine the Romans would have enjoyed such amenities).

Nadal continues to stroke winners from every corner of the court (boom! There goes another backhand, this one over the outside net post and into the corner) as poor Rochus looks on in amazement. Nadal claimed the first eight games of the match before Rochus recovered some dignity. Then the Spaniard closed the second set with three consecutive aces. For my money, he has the best forehand in the game, and perhaps the best backhand, too (I refer you to last year's Wimbledon final, in which Nadal hit both the finest slice backhand passing shot and the most remarkable two-handed cross-court bomb I've ever seen). Now he can serve, too?

An opponent like Rochus, of course, doesn't tell us much about the form of the world No. 1. Nadal could win this match in straight sets on a very bad night. But if you're looking for positive signs, well, there are many. Nadal is serving for the corners and hitting those corners. He's standing close to the baseline during (rather brief) rallies. He's stepping into his returns and moving forward whenever he gets the chance. The question, as always, is whether he'll be able to do that when the competition stiffens.

No matter how well he plays and how many titles he wins, Nadal still doesn't inspire as much confidence on hard courts as he does on clay and grass. This isn't surprising, but perhaps for different reasons, I suspect, than most observers suggest. The book on Nadal is that he often plays too defensively on hard courts (and hits the ball too short), and that he doesn't serve well enough. I don't think that's true these days, as his gold medal run at the Beijing Olympics showed. Nadal plays more aggressively each year, no matter the surface and his game is perfect for hard courts. It just happens to be more perfect for clay and grass. The chief reason? On cement, to my mind, Nadal's superior hand-eye coordination becomes less of an advantage. (Match update: Nadal spins, runs hard to the baseline, and loops a topspin lob winner. The lion roars again.)

How often do you see Nadal mishit the ball or hit an outright shank? Considering how hard he swings, and how much spin he applies with an extreme western grip, not too often. That's the case on clay and grass, too, where the bounces are unpredictable. In the rain, in the dark (the Wimbledon final), in the blinding sun, on clay, on grass--it doesn't matter. For everyone else, it does, or at least, it matters more than it does for Nadal. I can't help but think that his Uncle Toni, who made a point of teaching the young Nadal to deal with shoddy courts and conditions, has a lot to do with his nephew's impeccable timing, no matter what the ball does after it bounces. (Forehand winner down the line; Nadal to serve for the match.)

Hard courts, of course, give the truest bounces in the business. On hard surfaces, Nadal's supreme spin, so effective (and so unpredictable once it crashes into clay or a worn down patch of grass) becomes more predictable. His drop shot, which is underrated, becomes less of a weapon, too.

These are subtle difference, but important ones--differences that define wins and losses against opponents like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray. It's not the whole story of Nadal's failure to win a major on a hard court, but it is part of it, and part that is too little discussed.

That said, I fully expect Nadal to win a hard court major or two, and perhaps this one (we'll know more about his chances later in the week, especially if he meets someone like Fernando Gonzalez, the slugger who demolished Nadal here in 2007, when Nadal's offensive skills weren't nearly as developed).

A final update: Nadal detonates another winner to bring on match point, followed by another forehand blast to end this bloody affair, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2. One hour and 17 minutes and one Belgian carcass later, I'm through for the night. By the look of things, Nadal has many nights to go.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.
1 2 3     NextNext >>

Posted by tina (Suicide Pool first-timer, still alive!) 01/20/2009 at 08:15 AM

Thanks for the write-up of a match I slept through, Tom. I swear, one of these years I'm just going to have to go down to Melbourne! Go Rafa!

Posted by NDMS 01/20/2009 at 09:11 AM

0,2,2 is not a surprising scoreline by Rochus against a top 5 player. His last 4 matches against Davydenko in 2006: 3,1; 1,2; 1,2; 0,0 (a double bagel). Rochus is 2 years older now at 30 and the commentators mentioned that he's nursing a calf and ankle injury. They said he even joked around that when he found out that Nadal was his first-round opponent, he said "I hope I win a game."

When Nadal plays a severely outmatched opponent, the one thing I look for is that he doesn't dilly-dally. And he didn't.

Posted by twist serve 01/20/2009 at 09:15 AM


Maybe I'm saying something related to your point, but I think the real reason Nadal hasn't won a hard-court slam is because he gets forced to play far more players who by far prefer playing on hard courts. If you look at the players Nadal has lost to at the hard-court slams since Nadal became a top 10 player (Youzhny, Tsonga, Murray, etc.), it's always been to a guy who loves to play on hard courts. Even the lost to a "clay courter" like Fernando Gonzalez was to a guy who loves to play on hard courts.

Posted by rafadoc 01/20/2009 at 09:17 AM

Thanks Tom...Spot. On. I agree with the phenomenal hand-eye coordination...and he must have better than 20/20 vision, I swear. Anyway, this was a fun, enjoyable read.

Posted by Kofi 01/20/2009 at 09:18 AM

I loved this piece, Tom.
I think Rafa's developing offensive skills will not only help to win the match at-hand, but also conserve energy for the next ones. (Don't remember if being tired was part of what Fernando González did to him in AO 2007...)

Posted by 1963USCtennis 01/20/2009 at 10:02 AM

"I refer you to last year's Wimbledon final, in which Nadal hit both the finest slice backhand passing shot and the most remarkable two-handed cross-court bomb I've ever seen"

Let's not get carried away just yet...

The backhand bomb was the most explosive backhand ever hit...
(it will be forever imposible to compare even with someone like Borg or Connors because these racquests make the comparisons impossible).

However, as fine a shot as that slice was, Nadal's slice is noooowhere near "great" slice backhands of years past. Maybe it was the greatest slice you have "seen" in person.

But go back and review tape of John McEnroe or Ken Rosewall, along with many other greats who could handle that shot (Nastase, Laver... etc)

The fact is in today's power game the slice shot has almost dissapeared and few players have come close to using it effectively, much less mastered it.

But YES I agree, Nadal's slice passing shot in Wimby was fantastic (also, remember the 08 Monte Carlo final, the set point for the first set was an "exquisite" slice to win the set... remember some oltimers prefer accuracy and art to brute power, he he), and he has now the top backhand in tennis.

Posted by imjimmy 01/20/2009 at 11:12 AM

Thanks Tom! What an excellent piece. Gosh! I wish I was in Melbourne to see Rafa. I personally love his new look.

Is he playing better than he did against Gael when he lost.

Really appreciate your thoughts -- please keep them coming!

Posted by Mark 01/20/2009 at 11:16 AM

I acutually believe Nadal is capable of winning a GS on Hard court. He is the fittest guy on tour, with an incredible desire to win, outstanding mental toughness and an aggressive game to destroy all his opponents. He looked great last night. Even though he has been overlooked by the majority of "so called tennis experts" he enjoys being in the shadow and will continue on talking with his racket as he did in 2008!

Posted by Syd 01/20/2009 at 11:27 AM

Thanks Tom, terrific read;

And one designed to comfort this Federer fan. Still, as you note, O. Rochus was not a test in any shape or form, for Nadal— we're gonna see against some of the, ahem, more prominent hardcourters. Though, really, can't see anyone stopping him now until he gets to Murray. Then, all bets are off.

Posted by Dave 01/20/2009 at 11:28 AM

That's the best tennis article I've ever read. Packed with verbs............

Posted by Syd 01/20/2009 at 11:28 AM

er, "NOT one..."

Posted by PCSB 01/20/2009 at 11:45 AM

Okay Nadal played great! But look who he played against and injured guy who was no competition so i don't understand why everyone is praising his so called performanmce?

Posted by Nick 01/20/2009 at 11:59 AM

Brad Gilbert pointed out something on ESPN last night that's new and could make Nadal more of a threat on hard courts. Nadal's not running around his backhand as much as he used to, which left a huge opening for opponents to hit in to; he's trusting his back hand more and more. He did serve great, and he's got a great draw to get to the 2nd Week. Like usual in Nadal's career, he's at his most dangerous when all the "experts" have written him off.

Posted by twist serve 01/20/2009 at 12:38 PM


I'll bet there's this Swiss guy who will be thrilled to hear Nadal's hitting fewer forehands.

Posted by Telos 01/20/2009 at 12:38 PM

Rafa played very well, despite his competition. His forehand was so powerful. I anticipate to see him play a tougher opponent.

Posted by rose 01/20/2009 at 12:39 PM

i loved the article the way not mant ppl r paying alot of attention to him he'll end up doing some serious damage!

Posted by Julian B 01/20/2009 at 12:52 PM

No matter which way you spin it, Nadal did win in 77 minutes. Who else looked impressive?
1. Rafael Nadal (As we all know Nadal "struggles" early in Grand Slams before ripping his opponents. Good sign)
2. Andy Murray (His opponent didn't even finish)
3. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (Toughest opponent of all top ranked players and bagelel him in the final set)
4. Andy Roddick (Held his opponent to a total of four games)
5. Fernando Verdasco (Trashed his opponent)
6. Gilles Simon (Trashed a good player)
7. Novak Djokovic (Dissapointing match, but turned it on when he was in trouble)
8. Roger Federer (Very unimpressive, too many unforced errors)
9. Gael Mofils (Decent match and always a juge threat)
10. Ernests Gulbis (If this guy starts winning in strait sets, can you imagine how dangerous he'll get?)
Notable Mention: Bernard Tomic, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Marat Safin

Posted by Nick 01/20/2009 at 01:01 PM


The way that Swiss Guy kept dumping and spraying forehands all night in his first match, to the tune of 43 unforced errors in only 3 Sets, it's not Nadal's forehand he needs to worry about. His own forehand is becoming more and more of a liability these days.

Posted by † Hallelujah 01/20/2009 at 01:21 PM

Nadal plays with a huge racquet head, this probably has a lot to do with his low number of shanks and mishits. Nadal's obviously amongst the best 10 hard court players, but I think Murray's backhand's stronger than his. Fed, Murray, Nole and others have demonstrably stronger serves with greater variety. He may have varied his serve placement against the hapless Rochus, but against better players he consistently spin serves to the righties backhand ; a fact which Murray, Nole and Nalbandian increasingly take advantage of. He can easily overpower a player like Rochus and hog the baseline, he's made progress and plays further up the court these days, but this wasn't his status quo as it is for Fed and Nole.

Posted by twist serve 01/20/2009 at 01:35 PM


I'm just saying it's Nadal's forehand to Federer's backhand that has been the killer shot this rivalry, and that the fewer backhands Federer has to hit around his eyeballs the better chance he'll have it they meet in the final.

And I wouldn't put too much stock in how poorly Federer hit his forehand in a first-round match against an opponent who surely wasn't gonna beat him. Just like I wouldn't put too much stock in Nadal serving aces against an injured first-round opponent with short arms.

By the way, I'm not a Nadal hater. I think he's great for the game, and it's been good that Federer has had to deal with a real rival just like other greats had to.

Posted by Candace s 01/20/2009 at 01:37 PM

I am a Nadal fan to the core. And watching him you know he keeps getting better and better. I really want go down under.

Posted by Amit 01/20/2009 at 02:06 PM


"His own forehand is becoming more and more of a liability these days."
Yes, with all his forehand dumps and backhand shanks, one wonders why Mr. Federer is even attempting to play tennis any more.
"Like usual in Nadal's career, he's at his most dangerous when all the "experts" have written him off."
Ah, so he is not quite so dangerous at the French, shall we assume ?


I would probably put a few other forehands and backhands in the same category or exceeding Nadal's. Federer/Murray/Djokovic/Nalby must be at least comparable, wouldn't you agree ?

Posted by lousy hacker with aweful shots 01/20/2009 at 02:13 PM

† Hallelujah,
I would hardy call 100 sq in "huge". Most players use 95+ sq in that I have seen. The closest to Fed's 90 sq was Novak with the KBlade at 93 sq in. I'm probably stepping out on a limb, but I bet more of the top 10 players are swinging 100. Does anyone else on the tour use the 90 sq in that Fed uses? If TMF is at a disadvantage using a 90 sq in head, he should get a new stick with a bigger head.

Posted by moxie 01/20/2009 at 03:25 PM

how come its a massacre when nadal beats a journeyman 6-0 6-2 6-2 but not when roddick does the exact same?

Posted by Katie 01/20/2009 at 03:37 PM

I don't think that winning a hard court major is out of the question for Rafa. However, he will likely have to go up against at least one of either Roger of Novak, both of which have won the tournament before. Still, Rafa has defied odds before, and perhaps he will do it again.

1 2 3     NextNext >>

We are no longer accepting comments for this entry.

<<  Meet the New Boss Day 2 Notebook: Hotter Still  >>

High Stakes
Wide Ball
Old Times
The Yips
Forehand Madness
This blog currently has 98 entries and 4639 comments.