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You can beat Rafael Nadal on fast courts but it’s not easy as Marcos Baghdatis found out in Paris today.

Rafael Nadal beat Marcos Baghdatis today in the semifinals at the Paris Masters, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. (David Nalbandian continued his improbable indoor court success by beating Richard Gasquet, 6-2, 6-4, in the other semifinal).

In preparation for tomorrow morning’s live blogging broadcast of the Paris final – a format that is usually a chain of thoughts rather than a cohesive narrative – I’m going to lay out a chain of thoughts on today’s match between Rafa and Baggy.

How to Beat Rafa on Fast Courts

Mikhail Youzhny and Tomas Berdych can tell you exactly how to beat Rafa on a fast court: attack his forehand. People attack Rafa’s forehand because he has such a long wind up that it’s hard for him to prepare properly. On a clay court he patrols miles behind the baseline which gives him time to rev up his windmill topspin forehand. On fast courts, players like Youzhny and Berdych hit hard flat shots so the ball gets there too fast for Rafa to stay behind the baseline.

Having said that, it’s not easy to beat Rafa on a fast court.

Paris is Slow

If you look at the court speed rankings on tennisform.com, you’ll see that Paris is the fourth fastest court on tour, ten places in front of Madrid, averaged over the past ten years.

If you look at the court speed ranking for Paris on tennisinsight.com’s Tournaments page, you’ll see that Paris has slowed down over the past few years to the point where it is now slower than the court in Madrid.

Clearly the ATP has slowed the court down. I don’t know if the balls are different (the measurements above are based on the number of games played per set, not a physical measurement of the court) or they have physically slowed down the court. No doubt both. In either case, that makes it harder to beat Rafa.

Don’t underestimate the importance of speed. Rafa is 14-6 on indoor hard court for his career but only 8-8 on carpet which is usually faster. Baghdatis is the opposite: 6-6 on indoor hard court and 16-4 on carpet.

Rafa Never Wears Out

Even if you’re much better conditioned than Baggy, and most players are, you’ll get tired because Rafa runs everything down and he’s a master baseline player so he’ll run you all over the court.

This is a problem because you have to attack Rafa else he’ll control the point. That means you’ll make lots of errors going for big shots and the more tired you get, the more errors you’ll make.

Baggy got tired. He needed to win this match in two sets. At the end of the first set and beginning of the second, Baggy won eight out of nine games. He was sucking air by the fifth game in the second set and Rafe won six of the next seven games.

Baggy got a second wind at the end of the third set and the last game of the match was magnificent. Baggy had to have the break of serve to stay in the match and he was slamming the ball while Rafa was retrieving everything in sight. Baggy hit a beautiful touch volley but Rafa followed that up with a passing shot thread through the smallest of windows.

Rafa’s OCDness

Rafa has more than a touch of something known as an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He has to be the last one on the court for the coin toss, he has to place his water and sports drink bottles in exactly the same place. There’s also the wedgie diving, the sock pull, and the frequent towel dry off. At one point he was sitting in his chair and inspecting his towel to make sure he didn’t lay it across his knees in the wrong configuration. Later in the game I saw him do it again.

It’s obsessive but it’s a deep part of his game and it helps him weather adversity such as Baggy’s win streak without losing psychological momentum. Lanny Bassham is a well-known expert on the mental aspects of sports. He’s an Olympic gold medalist in rifle shooting and he helps professional golfers, among other athletes. He strongly suggests that you bathe yourself in rituals like Rafa’s because it’s important to occupy the mind.

Have you ever sat down and meditated on a candle or followed your breath? Your mind will take off in a million different directions by the time you bring it back to the candle or your breath. An unoccupied mind in the middle of a tennis match will go down the road of doom given the opportunity. Your opponent wins three or four games in a row? Your mind thinks you’re the worst tennis player even to walk the earth.

I suppose there are people whose mind always moves towards the positive but I have yet to meet them. For the rest of us, if we can keep our mind occupied with ritual and rehearsal – visualizing your serve or your next return for instance – we can keep our mind from harping on our insecurities and move forward in the match.

Baggy Postscript

If Baggy hadn’t gone awol for a month earlier this year – he lost in the first round in Dubai and two consecutive Masters Series events, Indian Wells and Miami – it would have been an excellent year for him. He might well have been on his way to Shanghai instead of Gasquet.

He’s been ranked as high as number eight but he’s seems unable to stay there. I won’t promise that he’ll get to Shanghai next year but I do think he’ll end up in the top ten.


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