Sunday, January 16

In what form is Rafael Nadal as he faces another season on clay? | Tennis

OROn a beautiful spring day in Barcelona just over a week ago, Rafael Nadal threw himself to the ground and roared with joy in the skies above him. It was a scenario that has played out countless times over the past 16 years, particularly during this time of year.

In the three hours and 38 minutes it took for Nadal to overtake Stefanos Tsitsipas from match point down, he struggled with his own serve, his nerves and one of the fittest players this year. Your reward, your 87th title, will be just a footnote in your career when it’s all over. He celebrated it as one of his great victories.

As Nadal has explained numerous times since then, of course he would celebrate such a difficult victory so hard. Between a back injury in Australia this year and his decision not to participate in the first pandemic events, Nadal has played few tournaments recently and his form has suffered. In Melbourne, he hit a wall after beating Tsitsipas by two sets in his quarterfinals and lost in five. In Monte Carlo last month, he was dismayed when he was turned off in the third set against Andrey Rublev.

However, it was still a remarkable sight. This is a time when Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both five years older, ration their energies for the tournaments that matter most in the twilight of their careers. Novak Djokovic has spent much of this year stating, understandably, that he’s only really motivated by Grand Slam titles these days. Dominic Thiem, in the prime of his career, recently took a break after feeling drained from all the effort it took to win just one Grand Slam title. Nadal’s ability to be fully present in every match and every point he disputes feels even more meaningful and special as his career endures.

Still, the frequency with which Nadal’s mental strength is talked about can obscure many other qualities that have defined his greatness over the years. He is consistently described as the resident tour worker, the raging bull who plays with a primitive fighting spirit and works harder than almost all of his rivals.

In recent years, Nadal himself has come to reject many of these characterizations. Yes, your intensity and passion are essential to your success, but those qualities would be greatly diminished if you didn’t play with the clarity of thought and composure necessary to continually solve problems on the court. On the subject this week, he said: “On the court, I think I have always played with a positive attitude and of course I do my best. But almost always under good self-control. “

Rafael Nadal trains before his first match at the 2021 Mutua Madrid Open.
Rafael Nadal trains before his first match at the 2021 Mutua Madrid Open. Photography: Rodrigo Jimenez / EPA

Over the years, Nadal has created one of the most comprehensive games in the sport and his vast toolbox has allowed him to overcome his natural decline in foot speed and athleticism. Their better service has been essential to their sustained success, enabling greater efficiency on faster surfaces. The last two times Nadal finished his season as No. 1, 2019 and 2017, he won 90% and 89% of his service games, the highest number and the third highest of his career.

In the mid-2010s, when Nadal’s struggles pulled him out of the top five for the only time in the past 16 years, it was often his right wing that he struggled with. He made up for it by taking more responsibility with his backhand, which can now sometimes finish points just as brutally as his forehand. He’s matured at the net too: Nadal has always been one of the net’s most capable and talented individual players, but he chose his approach shots with care. Now he is much more daring with his game on the net: in the final of the 2019 US Open against Daniil Medvedev he executed 20 serves and volleys, winning 17, with 66 approaches in total. It has taken every facet of Nadal’s game to stay on top of the sport for so long.

Not all of these qualities have been so easy to muster so far this year, but on Wednesday Nadal will face Carlos Alcaraz in his first Madrid Open match as he continues on his way to a possible 14th Roland Garros title and 21st great. qualification . Their first meeting will create quite a stir as the 18-year-old Alcaraz on Wednesday has risen rapidly through the ranks and is already anointed as the next standard-bearer for Spanish tennis. You may have to wait some time to see how much you weigh.

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