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Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Nadal's Revival

By virtue of his impressive triumph at Indian Wells, California, in the Pacific Life Open, Rafael Nadal gave himself an immense boost at precisely the right time. It was the first time he had won a tournament since the 2006 French Open, a remarkably long span for a player of his stature. He had not even appeared in a final since losing to Roger Federer in the title match at Wimbledon last year. At that stage, having beaten Federer the first four times they clashed in 2006, after capturing his second French Open title in a row, Nadal seemed entirely capable of pressing Federer hard for the No. 1 world ranking.

But while Federer lost only one more match in the second half of 2006 and performed majestically, Nadal was never the same player. The big hitters and those with penetrating flat strokes were too much for the left-handed Spaniard as he failed to find his best form on hard courts. In the summer of 2006, Tomas Berdych beat him in Toronto. Juan Carlos Ferrero defeated him for the first time in Cincinnati. And then the Russian stylist Mikhail Youzhny upended Nadal in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. Berdych beat Nadal again in the autumn indoors, and his old nemesis James Blake took apart Nadal for the third straight time when they met indoors at Shanghai in the Tennis Masters Cup.

The pattern continued at the outset of this season. He played an impressive match to oust Andy Murray in a brilliantly contested five set clash at the Australian Open in the round of 16, only to fall in straight sets against a highly charged Fernando Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. Youzhny got him again in Dubai. Nadal was no longer competing with his old conviction, nor was he coming through in the tight corners of many important contests.

Had this losing streak continued, had Nadal fallen early at Indian Wells, had he headed into the next Masters Series event at Miami in the same state of mind, his woes might well have continued into the clay court season. But he was magnificent all week at Indian Wells, securing his third hard court Masters Series crown of his distinguished career, claiming a victory for the 18th time in 21 career final round showdowns. Keep in mind that two of those three losses in finals were at the hands of Federer. Dominik Hrbaty is the only other player to stop Nadal in a championship match, and that was early in 2004 when he was only 17.

This unexpected triumph for Nadal will undoubtedly propel him forward through the rest of the season, and help to repair his wounded psyche. He did not lost a set in six matches. And not only did he halt the rapidly improving Novak Djokovic—a 19-year-old who now has moved into the top ten in the world—with a 6-2, 7-5 victory in the final, but Nadal also took apart the resurgent Andy Roddick 6-4, 6-3 in the semifinals. In those last two matches, Nadal did not lose his serve. Because he held on to his delivery so sedulously, he gave himself the opportunity to go after his returns with more gusto and authority.

His performance against Roddick was perhaps the best tennis he has ever played on a hard court. Here was Roddick coming off good wins over Richard Gasquet and Ivan Ljubicic, having not lost his serve a single time in his first four matches. And yet, Nadal broke serve three times and could well have achieved two or three more breaks with a shade more good fortune. What was so encouraging for close followers of Nadal was not only the consistency of his serving but also the way he was pounding the ball off the forehand side.

That forehand is the make or break shot for the Spaniard, and he was utterly devastating off that side during this tournament. On the dead run, he made some dazzling winners down the line. When he was forced back on his heels, he defended himself ably with deep shots down the middle produced with his unique brand of topspin. And, most important of all, he was almost unerring and ultra aggressive when he had a chance to step in and get a crack at mid court balls. Time and again, Nadal came through with inside-out winners off the forehand. He often set that play up with well placed first serves, but also took control of rallies by hitting the forehand at full force, flattening it out whenever possible.

Nadal is approaching another very productive period in his career. He desperately needed a big performance at either Indian Wells or Miami to let everyone know that he was back in business, and he did just that this past week in California. It will be intriguing to see if he can follow up on this win with a strong showing in Miami, but now the pressure will be off in Florida. He would surely like to assert himself on the hard courts there after losing his opening round assignment to countryman Carlos Moya a year ago, but it is no longer a necessity for Nadal to perform stupendously there.

Nevertheless, if Nadal can sustain the form he displayed at Indian Wells, he might well find himself facing Federer for the second time in three years in the final at Miami. Two years ago, he was leading two sets to love and a service break up at 4-1 in the third before losing to his great rival. Federer rallied gamely from 3-5 down and two points from defeat in the third set tie-break to record a five set victory. With Federer surely eager to make amends for his surprise loss to Guillermo Canas at Indian Wells, it is not hard to imagine another gem in the Federer-Nadal career head-to-head series.

Nadal will be exhilarated after his latest tournament victory and should be very difficult to stop in Miami. Federer will be highly eager to reestablish his winning formula. The hope here is that they will both get to the final and produce an epic reminiscent of their 2006 Italian Open final, when Nadal saved two match points at 5-6 in the fifth set and then recovered from 3-5 down in the tie-break to prevail. The world’s two finest players have not clashed in 2007. It would be great for the game if they meet in Miami, pushing each other to the hilt, lifting our spirits in the process.


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At March 19, 2007 10:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"securing the third Masters Series crown of his distinguished career"


Also, you've got typos in your post.


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