I remember writing it last year: there is not one challenge that Rafael Nadal sets himself that he doesn’t overcome. His challenge, since April 2011, but especially since Rome 2011, has been to finally overcome Novak Djokovic. Credit to the Serbian for denting so the confidence of such a mental giant as Nadal. It takes a lot for this to happen and Djokovic was the only one to be able to do so.
Last year, Nadal came into Roland Garros admitting that he wasn’t confident. Then began many press conference confessions from the Spaniard, who really showed something was wrong. It continued being so all through the year, and for the most part of the beginning of this season, as we could see uncharacteristic things in Nadal’s game, such as problems closing out sets and matches, something we rarely saw in the past. Credit to Nole, again, for shaking the seemingly unshakable.
In this span of one year, Nadal has won only one title, his sixth Roland Garros crown, but ended up on the losing end of several finals (except for the Davis Cup), mainly to Djokovic, but also one to Andy Murray (Tokyo). As it happened in his previous title draught (in 2009-10), it’s in Monte Carlo that the Mallorcan stopped the bleeding, defeating easily a diminished Djokovic, which made many of us say that it would “only” do good to Rafa’s confidence.
Only… “Never wake a sleeping bull, especially in the rink.” This Monte Carlo title gave Nadal wings, as he then went to win Barcelona, but fell to Fernando Verdasco after leading 5-2 in the third set on the blue clay of Madrid. Wait and see what he would do in Rome, said we. And we saw.
Happy to get back on the red clay, Rafael Nadal went on to win the Internazionali BNL d’Italia for the sixth time, without losing a set. In the final, he was facing Novak Djokovic, in what we expected to be a tough battle. Battle there was, as Nadal started with difficulties serving, but managed to break in the fifth game of the initial set, only to lose the break right away. However, despite an abysmal 50% of first serves in the set, Nadal found a way to hold on to his service games, with Djokovic wasting many opportunities and finally getting broken again at 5-5, making the Spaniard serve for the set, which he did, taking it 7-5.
From then on, things went rather AWOL for the World no 1, as Nadal broke in the first game of the second set, and went on to hold on to that lead, converting his first championship point on a double fault (Djokovic’s fourth of the match) for a 7-5 6-3 win and a sixth title at the Rome Masters 1000.
Many think that, for this reason, Rafa Nadal is the great favourite for Roland Garros. For me, he would have been even had today’s result favoured Djokovic. Nadal and Roland Garros are so closely knit (just like Nadal and Monte Carlo, for instance) that even had he lost today in Rome, it would not have changed my perception of things.
For now, however, the bull is fully awake, confident, and the coming French Open should be even more interesting, once we know where every piece of the tennis puzzle falls in the draw.
A little side note
Some people think that a controversial call in the first set caused Novak Djokovic’s demise in the match. I believe it’s not the case. It might have caused him the game, maybe the set, but not the whole match. Djokovic is far stronger than that mentally as to let one call ruin his whole match.
In my opinion, it’s Rafael Nadal’s fight that caused Djokovic to completely lose his means. Maybe the Serbian was not on top of his game, but to collapse this way, and double faulting on match point like he was doing in his pre-2011 days? Impossible that only one point would cause that.
Again, that’s only my opinion.
For the moment, though, Rafael Nadal seems to be back in full confidence and that bodes well for him (and very bad for his opponents) a few days before the start of the French Open.