French Open Preview: Shark in the Water

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Novak Djokovic was fired up after winning the second set from Rafa Nadal in the Monte Carlo final.  The contest was knotted at a set apiece, and the Serbian’s groundstrokes had depth and meaning. For a few moments, it was Djokovic who was doing the pushing and pulling.

But on the Spaniard’s beloved red clay, it’s Nadal who almost always does the pulling in tug of wars because he knows that his opponents have to be able to hang with him until the last ball is struck, and no one has shown over the past five years on clay that they have the legs, stamina or heart to grapple with him. That’s why the multi-talented Djokovic went down 6-3, 2-6, 6-1,  just like dozens of others have before him.

“He’s got the psychological edge where everyone know that he’s Nadal and he’s already up and set and break before he walks on court,” said sports psychologist Allen Fox, author of The Winner’s Mind.  You know he’s never going to quit and it’s a nasty prospect.”

After incredibly winning his fifth consecutive Monte Carlo crown, his fifth Barcelona title,  and his fourth Italian Open shield (over who else but Djokovic) the left-handed Nadal ran his clay court record in finals to 25-1, which makes the 22-year-old, to state the extremely obvious, a gigantic favorite to win his fifth consecutive French Open.

One of the reasons for that is that Nadal continues to win on clay — and most other surfaces — even when he’s not at the top of his game. He plays a nearly error free type of game, where his defense is almost always airtight and his offense borders on spectacular.

His uncle and coach, Toni, said that after his nephew put down his two nearest competitors of the season, Andy Murray and Djokovic, at Monte Carlo, that Rafa was missing a bit of confidence and that his serve was way off. But still, he bullied his foes, because they can’t figure out a way to get the ball past him when he comfortably sliding and sticking his groundies.

“Nadal has a throwback head to the old guys.  Connors was probably the last of the bunch, where he went after every point,” said Fox. “Nadal makes every single point painful, regardless of the score. That pays off. On clay, the balance of power shifts toward the ability to grind the guy down mentally because you can’t blow Nadal out. Now you are getting into a brawl, and he’s the best brawler around.”

There doesn’t seem to be many competitors who relish the prospect of facing Nadal on clay. Nadal’s Davis Cup teammate, Feliciano Lopez, told Diaro Sport that his friend simply doesn’t check out.   “He’s very ambitious and has demonstrated that he wants it more every day, “ Lopez said.  “In spite of everything that he’s already has achieved, he still has the same attitude and desire.”

Two-times French Open finalist Alex Corretja, who is now helping coach Murray, says that no player is better at staying in the moment. Nadal doesn’t even understand the meaning of resting on one’s laurels.  “That dgfev online casino makes him the greatest one,” he said.
Another one of Nadal’s Davis Cup teammates, Tommy Robredo, believes that Nadal is human and will have a bad day eventually, but also added that to beat him, a player has to play perfectly.

“Physically there is no way to get at him,” Fox said. “The way he’s beatable, if at all, is to attack into the forehand because that can come up short and then maybe take advantage of the other side and come in. Getting him wide of the forehand is the best play, but from there, it depends on what you’ve got to be able to finish the point. If it’s down to where you beat a guy physically, a guy can have an off day where he’s just missing, but on clay, it invariably comes down to the mental aspect. Everyone can keep the ball in court, but Nadal isn’t going to have a bad day mentally.”

There are two schools of thought as to how to tackle the Spaniard on clay: one is play far  back in the court in the style of a backboard and force him to go on offense. Another is to attempt to rip winners and climb all over the net. Neither has worked since Nadal won his first Roland Garros crown in ‘05. He has answers for anything and everything.

“Physically you can’t depends on hitting big shots everyday, but mentally you can have a good day  every day and he does,” Fox said.  “Players aren’t going to be mentally stronger than he is. If you can’t blow him out, it’s going to come down to a  mental brawl and he’s not going to have an off day that way. If you try to play steady with him, then you are sure to get into the brawling and no one can concentrate as long as he can.”

Fox believes that attacking the Spaniard is the only solution. Roger Federer has tried that for portions of his matches against Nadal at the French Open during the past four  years, but has failed to pull off a victory, because Nadal passes like a demon. Djokovic found out the same at Monte Carlo, as he converted less than 50 percent of his net rushes.

“I can’t see a strategy where you have the edge over Nadal on clay, “ Fox said.  “They are all losing strategies, but you have to choose the best shot that you have, which is to attack, rather than just stay back and trade body punches, which is even worse.
Federer can get him, but his problem is that when Nadal hits his first shot into Federer’s backhand, Federer has no where to hit the ball where it’s any good.  If you try and just play into Nadal’s backhand, he eventually runs around and hits the forehand where he likes it, which is inside out, and then you’re in trouble. And if you get it to his backhand nothing good happens anyway, so the only chance is to get it to his forehand and  try to open up the court.”

Fox and every player on tour concede that it’s Nadal who has the most willpower these days. When he arrives in Paris with the intention of pocketing his fifth crown, Nadal will surely be thinking that he has all the solutions, and it’s up to the rest of the field to find a magic formula that might confuse him.

“You have to attack him somehow,” Fox said. “ The way I’ve seen it done best is like Murray does from time to time. If you have a really good backhand, you can hurt him badly on the forehand side.  It’s tougher on clay, but the alternative is to fight the shark in the water.  Maybe he can be upset by playing steady, but I’ve never seen it done and I can’t see how it would be done.”