All the Tension Sluiced Away

Madrid, Final

(5) Nadal d. (15) Wawrinka, 6/2 6/4

Rafael Nadal today defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets to reclaim the Madrid Masters title, winning a final whose almost complete lack of drama proved a fitting conclusion to a tournament whose outcome felt more or less foregone by the quarterfinals. There wasn’t even a Will Smith to enliven proceedings. Nor was there the usual dose of Ion Tiriac. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe Say what you like about him and his various ‘innovations’, but he at least allows tennis fans to indulge in their most cherished activity: vociferous moral outrage over highly trivial things. Alas, there was none of that.

Nonetheless, Nadal didn’t have it all his own way. He actually dropped a set this week, in total contrast to last week in Barcelona, where he dropped none. (That’s a worrying trend. He might conceivably drop two sets in Rome, and three in Paris.) Nadal’s key moment, we have been informed at soporific length, came when David Ferrer led him by a set and 6/5 in their quarterfinal, with the favourite serving to stay in the match. Ferrer achieved his desired short ball with Nadal hopelessly stranded on his backhand side. Ferrer, obeying his sly inner voices, opted against hitting the ball into the unoccupied acreage in Nadal’s ad court, and thereby gaining a few match points, which are the kind of points he should be interested in obtaining. Instead he hit it straight back to Nadal, who improvised an excellent reflex lob and subsequently won the point.

This point illustrated several things. Firstly, by so comprehensively stuffing it up, Ferrer lent further credence to the belief that he is destined always to blow it in such situations. Secondly, Nadal’s desperate shot to stay in the rally was a good example of what great hands he has under pressure, and showed why he is so difficult to beat: all he needs is half a chance. Thirdly, it usefully demonstrated that skill and luck are not mutually exclusive. Skill makes certain outcomes possible, or less unlikely, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee them. Skill gave him half a chance.

The only thing less surprising than Ferrer wasting his half-chance at victory was that, even up a set against a curiously wayward Nadal, it would prove to be his only chance. However, one shouldn’t make more of this moment than it merits. There’s a reason we don’t maintain statistics on all those who win titles after nearly facing match point. As soon as Nadal won that point, the match was as good as over, and all the tension sluiced away. The third set was a bagel. So was the first set of his semifinal against the unlikely Pablo Andujar, who’d sustained his audacious run by upsetting Kei Nishikori in the quarterfinals. Andujar is probably the least likely Masters semifinalist in recent times, and Nadal quickly set about demonstrating how little his compatriot belonged in the last four at this level.

Wawrinka’s path the semifinal had been altogether more fraught, since he’d been obliged to overcome two top ten players, including last year’s finalist Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. This was probably the match of the tournament (although others had run it close, such as Grigor Dimitrov’s dramatic upset of Novak Djokovic, Ferrer’s over Tommy Haas, and Daniel Gimeno-Traver’s victory over Richard Gasquet). It ensured that Madrid’s final weekend at least had one match worth remembering, which is sadly about all we can hope for these days. Both of Wawrinka’s victories had taken three sets, as had the one against Dimitrov, and each had boasted its share of enervating drama. This probably wasn’t going to play in Wawrinka’s favour against Nadal.

Introducing today’s final, Sky Sports led enthusiastically with the statistic that Nadal had never lost to the Swiss in eight previous meetings, and that he hadn’t dropped a set in any of them. They then reiterated precisely how exhausted Wawrinka must be, given his heroic toils en route to the final, and how nervous, in just his second Masters final. His only hope, it was intimated, was the altitude, which Madrid has a lot of, and which Nadal, we were constantly told, doesn’t much care for. Regrettably, Wawrinka’s feelings on the matter weren’t canvassed, and no tactical advice was forthcoming on how he might turn this astonishing geographical phenomenon to his advantage.

Although Nadal had won seventeen consecutive sets against Wawrinka, none of them were bagels. At least Wawrinka can hold that over Ferrer, for the time being. Still, it was a close run thing when Nadal leapt out to a 4/0 lead. Wawrinka thankfully managed to hold, and then held again for 2/5. But holding was all he was doing and it wasn’t anything like enough. Nadal had yet to drop a point on first serve, and closed the set out easily. We were whisked back to the Sky studio, where the visual evidence was confirmed: Nadal was indeed playing exceptionally well, in spite of the altitude.

Wawrinka faced break points in the opening game of the second set, but made the key adjustment of saving them all, which produced the happy result of him holding serve. Nadal held more emphatically, but at least some kind of battle had been joined. It was still a hopelessly lopsided battle, but it was something. I think Nadal was taken to deuce on one of his services games, which was very exciting. (When you’re searching for narrative tension, you have to take what you can get.) Wawrinka threw in a truly appalling game at the set’s midpoint, sealing his own fate with a pair of double faults. I assumed it was the altitude, and that those serves would have found the service box at sea level, but the experts working for Sky offered no insight. Nadal held comfortably for the title. Clearly that earlier deuce game had weighed on his mind; as Wawrinka’s final shot landed long, the Spaniard collapsed onto his back, exultant at closing out a match he’d never once looked like losing. The stats told the tale. Nadal won ninety per cent of first serve points (as ever he landed the majority of them), while Wawrinka achieved a perfect return on break opportunities: 0/0.

Afterwards, while Nadal searched for a part of the Ion Tiriac trophy he could bite without sustaining injury, it was reiterated just what an achievement it was for him to win this week, in spite of Madrid’s allegedly trying conditions. It was all growing rather tiresome. The conceit, unquestionably, is that even when Nadal wins easily there’s a requirement that he must be struggling against something. The discourse of el guerrero imparable is too pervasive to be casually set aside, and thus most analysis is made subservient to it. Nadal’s incredible technical skills on a tennis court, buttressed by tens of thousands of hours training, are constantly glossed over in favour of the preferred narrative that he wins through sheer spirit despite the putatively crippling flaws in his game and atmospheric conditions designed to test only him. I think this does nothing but diminish Nadal as a player, in pursuit of a trite story.

According to this story, not only does Nadal battle the exterior elements – wind, rain, altitude and roofed-courts are his perennial adversaries – but his own inner demons as well. Thus we are treated to constant assessments of Nadal’s ‘confidence levels’. After today’s final we were reminded that this victory would give him a great deal of confidence heading to Rome, as though winning it six times already wouldn’t do that, and as though it matters much either way. No other player’s results are so closely tied in with this nebulous concept of ‘confidence’. Indeed, the current confidence-level can even be measured in real-time based on the depth on his groundstrokes: the shorter they fall, the less confident he is. I have never heard any other player’s shots discussed in this manner; mostly they hit balls short because striking a tennis ball is an imperfect art and no one can hit a perfect shot every time. Sometimes you have a bad day, and less of your shots go where you want them to. Once again, it comes down to the widespread eagerness to downplay Nadal’s technical mastery in favour of his capacity to overcome adversity. In fact he dropped a decent proportion of forehands short in today’s final: in the last few games alone there were plenty that didn’t clear the service line. The difference is that Wawrinka, unlike Djokovic, couldn’t attack them, and Nadal is a superb counter-puncher who deals severely with any assault less than perfect.

The apparently unfathomable truth is Nadal wins matches and tournaments because he is a great tennis player. He wins a vast number of clay court matches not because of some indomitable warrior spirit, but because his exceptional game is even more exceptionally suited to that surface. His forehand is ferocious, his movement is exceptional, his serve is effective and difficult to attack, and he is generally quite deft around the net. Part of this is also mental and instinctive: he reads the play well, and, like Djokovic, has an astonishing capacity to alter his patterns at crucial moments.

But most of his matches don’t have a crucial moment, because his level is almost invariably so high that he never gives the other guy a look-in. Confidence doesn’t enter into it. Since returning this season he has reached seven finals from seven events, and won five of them, including two at Masters level. Indeed, he has now won twenty-three Masters titles, which is two more than anyone else in history. I wonder when analysts will accept that he wins because he’s really, really good at tennis, and not despite the fact that he isn’t.

By winning Madrid, Nadal has closed to within twenty-five points of the number four ranking, and will assume it if he defends his Rome title next week and Ferrer fails to reach the semifinal. Wawrinka, meanwhile, returns to the top ten, an excellent return for his recent fine form.

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