Rafael Nadal won the French Open today by beating Roger Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. Can you believe it?
My synonym for percentage tennis is patience. I want to hit one more ball in court than my rival. I want him to think I’m much more patient so he’ll make a mistake either in execution (racquet error) or in picking a low-percentage ripper for the lines.
It worked well enough to win six French Open titles, four of them consecutive. Rafael Nadal was going for his fourth consecutive French Open today and his opponent for the last three has been Roger Federer. I don’t know what Rafa’s odds were but you wouldn’t have made much money off him because he hasn’t dropped a set here and only one player, Novak Djokovic, pushed him to a tiebreaker.
You’d have made a bunch of money, though, if you’d bet that Roger would win a total of four games in the match because no one expected that. How could Rafa – who’s undefeated at the French Open – have possibly improved? This is how: he played slightly lower percentage tennis.
He didn’t stand way behind the baseline and he didn’t play patiently. No, he didn’t turn into James Blake or Dmitry Tursunov overnight and rip every ball in sight, but he did move closer to the baseline and he did flatten out some balls that he would have hit with topspin in the past. This is how he explained it after the match:
I play more inside the court…so I play more aggressive. Not the typical clay court style, for sure, but I play more aggressive than usually.
Roger was surely watching Rafa’s matches here so it’s surprising that he seemed so shell-shocked. Rafa was up 3-1 in the first set when he hit some flat backhands and broke Roger at love. Roger was already walking around with his head down – the official pose of the befuddled – and it didn’t improve as Rafa’s court positioning allowed him to hit passing shots before Roger had fully arrived at the net.
Roger recovered his state of mind briefly with a break to get to 1-2 in the second set – only the second game he’d won in the entire match. Three games later, he hit one of those extreme angled cross court backhands he used against Rafa earlier this year but Rafa calmly hit a winner off it and Roger tipped his head back in disbelief.
Roger was playing more aggressively himself and it was working as he held his serve twice in a row to get to 3-3 in the set, but his mental state was still in the doldrums. In the next game, Rafa hit a winner off a net cord – which you expect after all – and Roger looked like a bedraggled rag doll as his head drooped and he threw his arm down in frustration. He never really recovered and, unbelievably, he didn’t win another game.
Roger, baby, Rafa has been nearly impossibly to beat on clay the entire tournament so we didn’t expect you to beat him, but dropping your head and flailing away, that is too much to bear. Three all in the second set and you couldn’t win even one more game? Novak Djokovic put up a better fight than you did. And what’re you going to do at Wimbledon?
The match was so short the network was reduced to showing last year’s Wimbledon final and somewhere in the back of Roger’s mind he must be thinking: if Rafa is playing this much better on clay by being more aggressive, how good is he going to be on grass? And what do I have to do to keep up with him?
After the match he admitted that Rafa had improved:
He no longer plays short balls as he did in the past. You can no longer attack him on his forehand, as I could in the past. He is getting much more aggressive, and it’s becoming much more difficult.
Difficult isn’t the half of it. Rafa’s performance was masterful. But Roger was decidedly absent and we didn’t hear his usual “I’m getting close to beating Rafa on clay” because he isn’t. He’s as far away as he’s even been and it’s hard to see that changing.
It looked like Djokovic might be the one to move pass Rafa and Roger, especially with his hard court skills and Rafa’s problems on hard court, but Rafa isn’t done yet and a title at Wimbledon, which looks a whole lot more likely after today, might get him to number one first.
And what if Rafa improves on hard court? That’s a scary thought.