Monday, April 23, 2012

Rafa Still King of Clay

By Angus Saul

Before I hurl accolades at Rafael Nadal for his victory in Monte Carlo last weekend, a great number of you will be saying, "No, Novak Djokovic's time is upon us. Monte Carlo was a blip."

A blip it may have been, but Djokovic is not the man of 2011. At this time last year, he had not lost a match. Now he has lost three. Worse, in his run of Masters 1000 events, Djokovic won the first four he participated in. This time around, he's one for three.

These aren't bad results, and the majority of players on the tour would give an arm and a leg for that kind of run, but it's not what people are expecting of the great Serbian warrior.

That said, there is a chink in the Serb's armor appearing. It is brought on not by poor play, but by the naturally upsetting loss of his grandfather earlier last week. Just three hours after learning of the loss, Novak decided to play and ground out a very emotional and very difficult win in what should have been a straightforward match.

Whether it was commendable to play or not is not for us to say. People deal with their problems in different ways, and maybe he put himself through those matches because his fans had travelled from far and wide to see him play. Either way, Novak pulled himself back into contention for all of the matches, always producing his best when it mattered most.

Except when he played Nadal.

Rafa knows that, sad though it may be, that Djokovic has lost a close family member, a match is a match, and his own fans had come to see him play his best tennis. He was brutally efficient in the way he dispatched the world No. 1, 6-3, 6-1.

Djokovic wasn't at his best, and his mind was clearly elsewhere, at least towards the end of the match. Out of the blocks, he was sharp as ever, dominating rallies, and pushing Nadal hard. But Nadal, who has won in Monte Carlo seven years running, wasn't about to roll over.

He produced the kind of display he hasn't shown Djokovic in years. He dug deep in defense and then battered all corners of the court with his lethal ground strokes. He pummeled Djokovic into submission. And yes, Djokovic faded away, but if Nadal had let up, he would have found a way back in.

But Nadal's experience in matches are that if you take your foot off the gas, you're allowing someone a chance. Press when you're ahead, and your opponent becomes demoralized. The only time I have seen Nadal demoralized was when he appeared lost in the Australian Open final in February this year, when he threw away an advantage to grant Djokovic a seventh successive victory over him.

But that streak is now at an end. Nadal couldn't beat Djokovic on clay last year, and while he may have had an advantage this time around, he will know that he hasn't lost his ability to win. An eighth straight title for Nadal at the Monte Carlo Country Club in Monaco is the pick-me-up he needed, having not won a title since last year's French Open 11 months ago.

Though still a month away, it would not be outrageous to think that Nadal has one hand on the Coupe des Mousquetaires. The clay courts of Monaco are very slow and they suit Nadal's game perfectly. The clay of Rolland Garros is similarly slow and thick, giving Nadal an edge over most of his competitors, who enjoy a faster ball.

In my own opinion, clay is a surface which shows how good a player is at hitting the ball and the variation in their game. Clay is a surface where you must batter your opponent in grueling baseline rallies, beguile them with cleverly disguised drop shots, and pull them out wide and close in for a put-away volley, or else be passed time and time again.

It is a game where service is almost irrelevant, and where the player with the better game usually wins out. Ivo Karlovic and Andy Roddick, with their huge serves and otherwise lacking games, have never found Rolland Garros a happy hunting ground.

Djokovic is a good clay court player, and the way he slides around the court is second only to "Mr Stretchy," aka Gael Monfils, and he will find Rome and Madrid easier to play, as the bounce is slightly lower, and the ball comes through a little quicker. This is particularly true of Madrid, where the high altitude and thin air has had players in previous years saying it plays more like a hard court.

Djokovic a good clay court player, but first and foremost, he's a hard court player. He may well dominate much of the hard court season this year as he did in 2011, but for 2012, the clay belongs to Rafa.

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