Monte Carlo Masters: Rafael Nadal’s experience proves too rich for his own good in lopsided loss to Fabio Fognini
Nadal’s experience may have failed him on Saturday, but going forward, for the most part, it will continue serving him handsomely.
For one thing, ‘experience’ is an understatement when it comes to clay; Nadal doesn’t just have experience, he has claycourt tennis in his veins
The golden rule of playing in the wind is to hit to safe targets so that even if the trajectory of the ball changes, it still falls within the lines
Nadal’s experience told him to play conservatively because of the wind, but he ended up listening to it too obediently and playing too safe
What’s the biggest advantage of having experience?
Some would say it is the ability to remain calm under pressure, others would say it is the tactical acumen to implement the right move at the right time. A few would insist it is the awareness of unpredictable elements and how to deal with them, while another group would have you believe it is the willingness to look at the big picture and not fret over minor setbacks.
And what are the disadvantages of having experience? There aren’t many, but Rafael Nadal got up close and personal with one of them in his Monte Carlo semi-final loss to Fabio Fognini.
Before we go any further, a customary reminder of just what Nadal means to the red dirt might be in order. For one thing, ‘experience’ is an understatement when it comes to clay; Nadal doesn’t just have experience of claycourt tennis, he has claycourt tennis in his veins.
11 titles at the Monte Carlo Masters is just the tip of the iceberg. Along with that ridiculous stat, he also has the highest ever winning percentage on clay, the most titles ever on clay, the best five-set record ever on clay, and by most accounts the most unconquerable game ever on clay.
Now while building up his legendary empire on the surface, Nadal has come across many different circumstances and obstacles, and not always from his opponents. Rain, sunshine, humidity, altitude, wind – just about everything the world can throw at him, has been thrown at him. And he has come out victorious against these obstacles practically every single time.
The last of the unpredictable elements I mentioned – wind – was conspicuous by its presence in Monte Carlo on the day of the Nadal vs Fognini semi-final. And just like everything else about the matchup, this detail also seemed to give Nadal an advantage. The Spaniard has always been known to be a terrific wind player; stories of his crushing win over Andy Murray in the ultra-windy Indian Wells 2009 final are still told in awed voices today.
What makes Nadal a good player in windy conditions? Aside from his underlying adaptability to any kind of situation, his ability to play attacking tennis with plenty of margin is probably the most important factor. The golden rule of playing in the wind is to hit to safe targets so that even if the trajectory of the ball changes, it still falls within the lines. And there’s nobody better than Nadal at hitting to safe targets, and still putting the opponent under pressure.
That golden rule is what Nadal – or any other sensible, experienced player – would diligently follow if forced to play a match in windy conditions. And that’s exactly the strategy that Nadal adopted in his match against Fognini, from the very beginning.
Only this time, it didn’t work. In fact, it backfired spectacularly.
Nadal’s experience told him to play conservatively because of the wind, but he ended up listening to it too obediently and playing too safe. He made a bigger deal out of an element of nature than he should have; while the wind was strong, it wasn’t strong enough to necessitate the kind of loopy shots that Nadal kept hitting.
Worse still, Nadal’s ill-advised approach played right into the hands of his opponent. Fognini is an instinctive, devil-may-care shot-maker at the best of times, and when repeatedly presented with short balls from Nadal, he started swinging freely and firing stone-cold winners all over the place.
The Italian struggled with the wind too at times, but by flattening his strokes and going for the kill he managed to hit right through it. In the process, he also showed that the wind actually wasn’t as big a factor as it seemed, and that Nadal might have been better served by playing his usual claycourt game.
The first set was competitive, but by the second set Nadal’s tentative play really got Fognini into his groove. Everything went by in a blur, and before we knew it Fognini was serving at 5-0, 40-0, one point away from making it a shocking landslide victory.
We all began to frantically look up a bunch of ‘last-time’ moments involving Nadal and clay. The last time he had won fewer than five games in a match was in 2015, against Andy Murray at the Madrid Masters. And the last time he had got bagelled on clay was as far back as 2007, against Roger Federer at the Hamburg Masters.
But faced with the prospect of humiliation, Nadal somehow rediscovered some of his attacking prowess and pushed Fognini on to the backfoot. He saved all three match points, broke serve and then held to make it a more respectable 5-2.
That was just delaying the inevitable though, as Fognini quickly regained his composure and started casually flicking winners past Nadal again. One last forehand winner that landed flush on the line sealed the deal, earning the Italian his third claycourt victory over Nadal – and even two wins had seemed like two too many.
What would have been the result had Nadal ignored the wind and hit with more purpose well before he went 0-5 down in the second set? That is debatable, but the day, in general, was something Nadal would like to forget soon, with or without the wind.
He failed to maintain his intensity for the entire duration of the match, failed to adjust to his opponent’s play, and even failed to hit neutral groundstrokes cleanly. Nadal made as many as 25 unforced errors (to just 22 from the far more risk-taking Fognini) in two relatively short sets, and most of them were routine shots gone wrong rather than attempted winners that just missed the lines.
“I probably played one of the worst matches on clay in 14 years,” Nadal said after the match. “When that happens, you lose. And today I deserved to lose because I played against a player that was better than me today.”
“It was this kind of day that everything was wrong,” he added.
As always, there was no shortage of truth-bombs in Nadal’s self-assessment after a particularly galling result. Everything did really go wrong for him against Fognini. And that in itself may be a source of encouragement looking ahead at the rest of the claycourt season, which is far from over. It can only get better from here, right?
Nadal’s timing was off in the semi-final, but he looked close to his claycourt best in a couple of matches at Monte Carlo – against Roberto Bautista Agut in the second round, and against Guido Pella in the quarter-final. Consistency is something that may take a little while longer to fall into place considering he is coming off yet another injury-induced hiatus, but the good news is that he looks fully fit.
He will be back on our TV screens in almost no time, with the Barcelona Open starting on Monday. And you can bet that he will have put this sobering loss behind him by the time he starts blasting forehands on ‘Pista Rafa Nadal’ (the court named after him).
That’s one of the advantages of having experience, after all: you can put the setbacks in the rearview mirror, and focus on the big picture instead. Nadal’s experience may have failed him on Saturday, but going forward, for the most part, it will continue serving him handsomely.
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