Sunday, May 25, 2008
Can Nadal Stay Perfect in Paris?
"Heavy, high topspin, great footwork, power, stamina. And, because he's a lefty, he bothers opponents even more," says Alex Corretja, winner of 17 ATP titles, who is now a coach for Andy Murray, in cataloging Rafael Nadal's physical gifts.
But the greatest of all Nadal's gift's?
"He has the mental power," Corretja says. "He believes he was born to be the best. He doesn't think he can ever lose."
Nadal will need every ounce of physical and mental power this year to make it through one of the toughest fields in French Open history. Incredibly, Nadal has won the French Open the last 3 years in a row and has yet to turn 22 years old (June 3). He is the odds on favorite to win the event, favored over his clay court dominating countryman, David Ferrer, over technical wizard Nikolay Davydenko, over Serbian tennis prodigy Novak Djokovic, and even over world #1 ranked Roger Federer. But Nadal isnt a bookmaker, and he knows any one of the top 5 players can wrest the 4-peat from him, and there are several dozen other highly skilled players who would like a crack at him as well.
To draw against Nadal in The French is considered death for just about any player, but be prepared to see some cataclysmic death spasms. Its generally considered not a great idea to expend every once of energy early in a major tournament, but if you draw against Nadal your tournament life is instantly on the line and you must play like it is life or death on every single point. So what this means for Nadal is that every player he faces for the whole tournament will play every single point against him as hard possible. He wont get a match off, a set off, a game off - its very likely he wont be thrown any gifts his entire stay in Paris. Not one point. If Nadal is going to win in Rolland Garros in 2008 with every player gunning for him, he is going to have to play his A game right off the bat and never stutter.
Tennis can be an extremely demanding and brutal sport. Most players have seen their best years behind them once they turn 30. The physical demands, constant injuries, and father time all take their toll, but the mental strain of constant travel, practice, competition, and dealing with the petulant media, may be the most intense of all the strains pro players suffer. The mental strain was so great for Justine Henin, world #1 womens singles player, that two weeks ago she simply reitred, being the first wonem to ever do so while #1. She said it was just too much after many years on the road, and that she felt her life was too defined by tennis, and the overall strain was too great to continue. This was the #1 player in the world. Imagine what the mental anguish is for #2, #97, #197, #297 and so on.
#2 Nadal, however, is incredibly stubborn in attempting to play every ATP event on the calender, including doubles. I think its pretty clear he wears the #2 ranking like a scarlet letter. If he cant beat Federer on non-clay surfaces enough to be #1, he'll just go win every other tournament on the planet. Last year, Nadal won back to back titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros and reached the Hamburg final, playing a herculean total of 27 matches (comprising 64 sets) in 57 days. This year, to delay Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami so they wouldn't compete with the NCAA basketball tournament for television viewers, the ATP compressed an eight-week spring clay season into seven weeks, making even greater demands on Nadal's body.
Even the resilient Spaniard wasn't able to rise above that potential obstacle. He won again at Monte Carlo, beating Federer in the straight-sets final, and a week later in Barcelona. He went to the Rome Masters with intentions of winning, but facing three tournaments in three weeks, something had to give -- and it was the skin on Nadal's right foot. A gruesome blister was the deciding factor in his loss to Ferrero, but it gave him a week off and the prospect of two weeks of mere practice in a stretch of three leading into Roland Garros.
So we should see a well rested, healthy, well practiced, mentally focused Nadal this week in Paris. If his is all those things, he has a great chance to win. If not, its almost certain he will lose. Im quite sure that this year, with one of the strongest and deepest fields ever, Nadal will need every weapon in his arsenal if he wants to make history and win the French Open for the fourth time in a row.