French Open 2019: Rafael Nadal is rounding into peak form at perfect time, and everyone else should be worried

“He isn’t trying anything different at all,” the commentator lamented mid-way through the Kei Nishikori versus Rafael Nadal quarter-final tie. Nishikori was wearing a particularly dejected look after losing yet another important point, and it was all anyone could do to not sympathise with his plight.

 French Open 2019: Rafael Nadal is rounding into peak form at perfect time, and everyone else should be worried

Spain's Rafael Nadal celebrates after his quarterfinal match against Japan's Kei Nishikori. Reuters

Would doing anything different have helped Nishikori? A few more drop shots, a few more serve-and-volleys, maybe even a few moonballs – something unconventional to shake Nadal off his crushing baseline rhythm?

It might have been successful for a while. But when Nadal is in the kind of claycourt form that he was in today, ‘different’ is code for ‘saving face’. Nishikori’s best hope in the quarter-final was to make the scoreline more respectable; winning a match against this version of the Spaniard was totally out of the question.

The truly scary part is that Nadal wasn’t even at his absolute best. He made a few untimely forehand errors and double faults, and even got broken at the start of the second set to bring the score on level terms. Once a rally got underway though, there was no doubting who the controlling force was. Nadal’s combination of spin and pace and consistency was like a tsunami that threatened to drown Nishikori even before making landfall. He yanked his hapless opponent to every corner of the court without even taking any risks, almost making the Japanese look like a junior player at times.

When Nadal is moving aggressively on clay, the match ceases to look like a mere racquet sport. If Roger Federer’s tennis resembles a ballet performance with its grace and artistry, Nadal’s tennis resembles a Haka dance. There is vigour and aggression and intimidation, but also a rhythmic beat to it all that tells us in no uncertain terms how methodical his demolition work is going to be.

And that dance was what repeatedly broke Nishikori’s will. The Japanese was coming off a couple of tough five-setters and was not particularly fresh, but he was made to look even more fatigued than he was by the hopelessness of his task.

Every time he tried stepping up and dictating play he was pushed back by Nadal’s seemingly telepathic ball control. And every time he tried stepping back and defending, he was blown off the court by Nadal’s vicious groundstroke barrage. Whether Nishikori hit close to the lines, down the middle, with curling underspin or with loopy topspin, the World No 2 was always ready with a blazing counter that left him shaking his head.

Even taking a leaf out of David Goffin’s book made no difference. The Belgian had shown a couple of days ago how targeting the Nadal forehand with flat and hard strokes is still a feasible strategy, if only for a set. But Nishikori, whose backhand is even better than Goffin’s, couldn’t get enough short replies from his crosscourt attacks. And on the rare occasions that he did, the fatigue – or was it nervousness? – he was feeling made him miss the easy putaways.

Nishikori made 17 winners and 30 unforced errors over three sets; while that is not an outrageously bad ratio, it is certainly not a way to save face against the King of Clay. By contrast, Nadal made 29 winners and 22 errors – a kind of ratio that is usually enough to win him a match against anyone in the world.

This performance was essentially a microcosm of a decade and a half of claycourt dominance by Nadal. He didn’t do anything special and he didn’t spend an inordinate amount of energy, and he still made a top-10 player look like a rank amateur. It was a reminder that Nadal’s natural claycourt game, even with the tweaks and frills that he has incorporated over the years, is good enough to win him a match with his eyes practically closed.

After Nadal’s win over Goffin, this writer had said that the match would have given hope to the rest of the field with its throwback to the Nadal-killing template. The destruction of Nishikori will probably have the opposite effect; it will serve as a warning to everyone that the Spaniard is rounding into peak form at just the right time.

When Nadal is hitting his forehand well, as he was in the quarter-final, the rest of his game flows freely too. He was solid with his serve against Nishikori and his backhand was practically unbreakable, while his side-to-side movement was as explosive as ever. There was just no way past him once the point went longer than five shots.

Nadal’s claycourt empire has been built on his stranglehold over the neutral and long rallies. In particular, his borderline hypnotic control of rallies involving Federer’s backhand has been synonymous with the Spaniard’s reign of dominance. The sight of Nadal tugging and pushing and maneuvering the ball until Federer’s backhand has been stripped of all its potency is perhaps the definitive representation of their rivalry.

The rivalry is going to be rekindled in this year’s French Open semi-final, the first ‘Fedal’ meeting at Roland Garros since 2011. A lot has changed since then but the dynamics of the Nadal forehand to the Federer backhand will likely have remained the same, at least on clay. And with the Spaniard having rediscovered the venom on his favored groundstroke over the last couple of weeks, there could be a mountain of terror awaiting the Swiss maestro on Friday.

Will Federer do anything different to counter that, as the commentator wanted Nishikori to do in the quarter-final? He can try, but as the last decade and a half has taught us, ‘different’ doesn’t really work against Nadal on clay.

Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 09:52:56 IST