Once Rafael Nadal accepted a wildcard into the bet-at-home Open in Hamburg, he knew full well that the only way of meeting his own standards and answering his growing legion of critics would be to capture the tournament. After losing in the second round of Wimbledon, many authorities believed he would wait until the hard court season leading up to the U.S. Open before competing again. They thought he needed time to clear and clean up a cluttered mind. They believed he was confronting an indefinite downward spiral. They were convinced that the “Essential Nadal” was lost somewhere in the distant past, that the towering Spaniard had moved to a permanent residence beyond his prime, that the man with a seemingly limitless supply of willpower and match playing savvy was no longer capable of competing favorably with the very best in his profession. They saw Nadal as a champion closing in swiftly on his twilight, mired in an irreversible slump, relegated to a lesser status.
Many of these skeptics maintain their doubts about Nadal. But the man himself—along with a wide range of astute observers—has an entirely different outlook. The redoubtable left-hander captured his third singles title of 2015, his 47th career event on his beloved clay, his 67th ATP World Tour crown altogether, and his first on the European clay this season by halting the gifted yet mercurial Italian Fabio Fognini 7-5, 7-5 in the Hamburg final. Fognini was going for an unimaginable third consecutive clay court triumph over the Spaniard, and in many ways the level of his game was even loftier than what he had put on display in victories over Nadal at both Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona earlier in the 2015 campaign.
To be sure, Fognini performed sparklingly in his two triumphs over Nadal, coming from behind robustly to take the former duel 1-6, 6-2, 7-5, holding back Nadal 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the latter contest. His backcourt heroics were strikingly evident on those occasions, even if Nadal was less than stellar in both cases. This time around, just about everyone in the know anticipated a Nadal resurgence. How could a competitor stationed at No. 30 in the world upend the universally acknowledged all-time best clay court player three times in a row? What would enable a player as unreliable as Fognini to live up to that tall task?
And yet, the Italian was striking the ball with clarity and precision in Hamburg. Nadal had approached this final with a burst of confidence, playing far and away his finest match of 2015, clipping Andreas Seppi 6-1, 6-2 comprehensively 6-1, 6-2 in the semifinals. The certitude with which he was going for his shots in that encounter was remarkable. This was reminiscent of days gone by, and perhaps a barometer of what may be ahead. He dissected Seppi with a combination of whirlwind topspin off the forehand that was bounding up high on the Italian’s backhand, a cluster of penetrating down the line shots off his favorite side, and some timely, flattened-out inside out forehands as well. His two-hander was driven with more pace and better depth than usual. Seppi never had a chance.
On his way to a 5-0, 40-15 opening set lead, Nadal had won 24 of 30 points. He double faulted at 40-15 and lost his serve but immediately broke back to seal the set. Leading 2-0, 0-15 in the second set, Nadal took a medical timeout, but, whatever the ailment was, he resumed play and was unstoppable thereafter. His blend of control and aggression was outstanding.
Against Fognini, however, Nadal was facing a more explosive and much tougher adversary. Fognini has a two-handed backhand that is right up there behind Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Kei Nishikori among the best in the sport. He can release winners off the forehand from almost anywhere on the court, although he is prone to mistakes off that side when pushed back. In his duel with Nadal, Fognini was always testing the Spaniard by setting the tempo during the rallies and dictating play to a large degree. The Italian was the aggressor by and large because he was determined to control the points as much as possible, but part of the reason the match unfolded in that fashion was Nadal’s deliberate strategy of looking to wear down his opponent with unrelenting consistency and excellent defense.
Nadal knew this was a match he could not afford to lose and a title he wanted more than any other in a long time. He pursued a gameplan devised heavily on the percentages. He refused to allow Fognini to see many second serves, even if that meant getting very little velocity on his first delivery. Nadal finished at 81% on first serves, but won only 56% of those points. Yet he still won 53% of his second serve points. I thought it would have behooved him to lower the first serve percentage down to 65 but hit it harder and send it closer to the lines. Nadal seemed unconcerned not only about pace but location, and largely ignored his acutely wide sliced serve in the ad court. That surprised me greatly.
But he knew how he wanted to proceed and did not waver from that plan from start to finish. That did require, however, an awful lot of discipline, determination and hard work across an arduous afternoon against an opponent who was more than willing to stay out there and compete. From the outset, this was a clay court war fought at a high quality on both sides of the net. The first game provided stark evidence of that. There were six deuces. Nadal led 40-15. He had four game points altogether. But Fognini got the break despite Nadal putting 15 of 18 first serves in play. Nadal broke back for 1-1 after two deuces. They exchanged breaks again in the third and fourth games.
Nadal seemed to find his range after that, although he was far from adventuresome and Fognini was the bolder player. He would produce 19 winners in the opening set, 13 more than the more conservative Nadal. But, as is often the case, with risks there were not always rewards. In the unforced error department, Fognini made more than twice as many as Nadal, 34 to 15. As that first set progressed, Nadal seemed often on the verge of victory, but a resolute Fognini kept fending off the Spaniard. Nadal held at 15 for 3-2 and had a 15-30 lead in the following game, but he pulled a backhand crosscourt wide with a small opening. After two deuces, Fognini held on for 3-3.
Nadal promptly held at love for 4-3 and then had a break point in the eighth game. Nadal’s return was too short, and Fognini attacked unhesitatingly, moving forward to put away an easy volley. He held on for 4-4. Nadal moved to 5-4, and advanced to 15-30 in the tenth game. But, once again, his return off the backhand lacked depth, and Fognini drove a two-hander exquisitely down the line for a winner. He made it to 5-5. In the eleventh game, Nadal, locked at deuce, tried a backhand drop shot that sat up invitingly for Fognini, who connected with a backhand passing shot. But Nadal retaliated to save the break point, opening up the court with an inside out forehand before making an elegant backhand drop shot winner down the line. After three deuces, he held on obstinately for 6-5, and then went to work once more.
With Fognini serving at 5-6, the Italian double faulted for 15-30 and an errant forehand swing volley put him behind 15-40. But, with his back to the ball, Fognini refused to fade away. Nadal’s running forehand passing shot down the line was first rate, but Fognini went one better, making a stab, half-volley winner into the open court. At 30-40, he took a short ball from Nadal and bravely sent an inside out forehand into the clear for a winner. Nadal garnered a third set point and he played a reasonably good sliced backhand down the middle, daring Fognini to come up with the goods at another propitious moment. Fognini was not found wanting, making another inside out, outright winner off the forehand.
But Nadal soon created a fourth break and set point opportunity, and this one he exploited. The unwavering Spaniard moved around his backhand on a second serve return and took a calculated risk. His forehand down the line return was letter perfect, landing in the corner for a winner. After 77 complicated minutes, Nadal took the first set 7-5. Fognini had to be deflated, but if that was the case he concealed his misery well.
In the second set, Fognini survived a seven deuce game to hold on for 1-1, but Nadal took a 3-1, 30-0 lead. A hold in that fifth game from Nadal might have driven Fognini to his emotional breaking point, but the Spaniard double faulted into the net. He still got to 40-30 and had two game points for 4-1 but Fognini’s penchant for seizing the initiative remained admirably evident. He saved the first with a dazzling running forehand down the line that was unmanageable for Nadal, and then produced a clean backhand crosscourt winner to take the second away from the top seed. Fognini gamely broke back for 2-3, and he was back in business.
The Italian held for 3-3 and broke Nadal for 4-3 with sustained aggression. Fognini had 40-15 in the eighth game, but Nadal answered that bell by raising the level of his game decidedly. He collected four points in a row to gain level ground at 4-4, but Fognini was unflagging. Although Nadal led 40-30 in the ninth game, Fognini steadfastly broke again for 5-4. At that changeover, the obstreperous and often irrational Italian complained to the umpire, with much of his rage directed at Toni Nadal. Fognini felt Toni Nadal was coaching his nephew and that was the source of his anger, but he moved in front of the umpire’s chair to vent his disapproval of the situation, and then stood not far from Rafael Nadal’s chair as he continued his tirade.
An understandably aggrieved yet composed Nadal firmly told his opponent to get back on his side of the umpire’s chair, which Fognini finally did. Whatever his gripes, even if he felt there had been a coaching violation, Fognini mishandled the moment flagrantly. Fognini is a hothead of the worst kind, and to waste his energy at that time—when he was about to try closing out the set on his own serve—was inexplicable and foolhardy. Be that as it may, Fognini surprisingly gathered himself commendably to build a 40-15 lead in the tenth game. Here he was at double set point, with a chance to force a third and final set.
Nadal had other notions altogether. He connected impeccably with a backhand return winner crosscourt off a second serve. With Fognini still at set point and leading 40-30, Nadal orchestrated the point terrifically, starting with a deep forehand return. He took that exchange with a scintillating backhand down the line winner. Perhaps shaken, surely disconcerted, Fognini netted a forehand drop shot and then netted a backhand off a high trajectory topspin backhand from the Spaniard. Just like that, it was 5-5.
Yet the struggle for Nadal was not over. In the eleventh game, he trailed 15-40, but then released his one and only ace of the contest out wide to Fognini’s forehand in the deuce court. At 30-40, Nadal came out on top in a 16 stroke exchange. After Fognini rifled a two-hander crosscourt, Nadal answered with a solid crosscourt forehand, and the Italian pressed, sending another backhand into the net. It was deuce. Now Nadal laced an inside out forehand, a shot that was struck deep and forcefully. From behind the baseline, Fognini somehow manufactured a spectacular forehand down the line winner.
The Italian was at break point for the third time, one point away from serving for the set a second time. But he went for a crosscourt winner off the backhand that was simply not in the cards and missed it badly. An errant forehand return from Fognini gave Nadal game point, and he held on for 6-5 as Fognini netted a backhand drop shot off a fairly deep down the line defensive backhand from the Spaniard. Now serving to stay in the final, Fognini led 40-15 but tamely netted a pair of forehands to make it deuce. Two deep returns from Nadal down the middle drew two more mistakes off the faltering Fognini forehand. On a run of four consecutive points, Nadal had gained a gratifying and crucial 7-5, 7-5 triumph to claim a third crown in his fifteenth tournament of 2015. The bruising encounter lasted more than two-and-a-half hours.
The week in Hamburg had fallen nicely into place for Nadal, who opened his campaign with a 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory over countryman Fernando Verdasco, another player who had beaten him two times in a row. That match was considerably closer than the score would indicate. Next up for Nadal was 22-year-old Jiri Vesely. Nadal won that one 6-4, 7-6, but three times in the second set he was up a break. At 5-4, ahead match point, Nadal double faulted into the net, and then he dropped that game with another double fault into the net. But, nevertheless, he came through in the tiebreak. Against Pablo Cuevas in the quarters, Nadal took his game up a notch or two, winning handily 6-3, 6-2. That set the stage for his impressive performance against Seppi, and his hard earned win over Fognini in a match that featured 12 service breaks in 24 grueling games.
Nadal’s two previous tournament triumphs in 2015 were both ATP World Tour 250 events. But this Hamburg win was his first at the 500 level this season, and it enabled Nadal to move up from No. 10 to No. 9 in the Emirates ATP [World] Rankings. More importantly, Nadal now has advanced to No. 6 in the Race to London, which counts only points in 2015 tournaments, while the rankings cover the span of the previous 52 weeks. By virtue of his success in Germany, Nadal will head into Canada and Cincinnati for the two Masters 1000 events in a much brighter frame of mind.
It is important for Nadal to build on the platform of his latest tournament victory. When he won earlier in the season at Buenos Aires on the clay and Stuttgart on grass, he fell back swiftly into a losing pattern, and lost the momentum he had created for himself on those occasions. That cut deeply into his confidence. Now he has an opportunity to close out 2015 with gusto.
The guess here at this juncture is that Nadal will not win his third U.S. Open in September. That might be asking too much of himself after all of his disappointments across the 2015 season. But there is no reason why he can’t put up some very good results for the rest of the year. He should be able to make his presence known in both hard court tournaments on his way to New York, and perhaps advance to the final in one of them. At the Open, a run to the semifinals or even the final is not out of the question. With some more solid showings in the autumn, Nadal has a good chance to finish the year back among the top five in the world.
If he can do that, if he keeps plugging away and competes with the intensity and inner belief he revealed in Hamburg, if he refuses to listen to the skeptics and remembers who he is and what he can still accomplish, Nadal will use the remainder of 2015 as a springboard toward a shining 2016. To be sure, he has to work purposefully, methodically and diligently to reemerge on his own terms as a player of the highest order, as a revitalized champion, as a man on a mission.
When Nadal steps out onto the hard courts in Montreal, he will need to beef up that first serve decidedly, use it as much more of a weapon, and employ the wide slice more effectively, but he is well aware of that. He must drive through the backhand and hit it with the depth, pace and authority he displayed all week in Hamburg, but that is something he can definitely do. The Spaniard will have to start hugging the baseline more on the hard courts, relying less on defense, dictating rallies regularly. I believe he will do just that.
Nadal is in the process of recovering his confidence. He has never taken anything for granted, not even when he was celebrating his finest seasons and largest triumphs. Considering that he is clearly among the best ever to play the game of tennis, Nadal is an uncommonly modest man, a fellow with deep humility, and an individual who readily admits that it is his nature to wrestle incessantly with inner doubts and insecurities. But the fact remains that he knows what he has already achieved and is not content to rest on his laurels. The guess here is that the “Essential Nadal” will be back in full view next year, but we will get more than a few glimpses of his greatness before the curtain closes on 2015.