Clearly, Nadal was tense and pensive at the outset, and understandably so. He had won 21 of 27 previous appointments with his tenacious and earnest fellow Spaniard, including a straight set triumph in the final here a year ago. But Ferrer has been burdensome for Nadal since then. He upset the world No. 1 last autumn indoors in Paris, taking that match in two close sets. Nadal avenged that loss a few days later in London at the Barclays ATP World Tour Championships, but then in April Ferrer upended Nadal again in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo, overcoming his left-handed rival for the first time in ten years on clay.
Considering those circumstances, it made sense that Nadal would approach this particular meeting with a layer of caution. He respects Ferrer immensely and always anticipates a rough battle whenever they clash. The early stages of this showdown were fascinating because Ferrer seemed to believe in his game and his chances, while Nadal was largely uncomfortable as he tried to find his range and to prevent Ferrer from forcing him back onto his heels. At the outset, unmistakably, the match was being played fundamentally on Ferrers terms as he peppered Nadals backhand almost incessantly and made aggressive returns time and again to take control of points.
The first game of the match was very important. Nadal laced a backhand down the line for a winner to reach 0-30, and seemed poised to assert his authority right off the bat. But he went for a bit too much on a second serve backhand return and pulled it wide. Ferrer was back to 15-30 and held on from there. The pendulum swing in that game seemed to set a tone for the set. Nadal had spoken a few times last week about his concern that he could not serve as hard as he would like after having some recurring problems with his back, and his speed on both first and second serves early on was insufficient to contain Ferrer, who is one of the sports finest returners because he plays them with controlled aggression and extraordinary depth.
The first blow was struck by Ferrer with Nadal serving at 1-2. Nadal was under siege all through that game, falling behind 15-40, rising to deuce, double faulting, and then saving a third break point. Ferrer would not stop coming at Nadal. He garnered a fourth break point but Nadal wiped that one away with an ace down the T at 197 kilometers, his biggest serve of the match. Ferrer kept the pressure on, and made his fifth break point count. Nadal missed a backhand down the line under little or no pressure, and Ferrer had built a 3-1 lead.
The tables were turned in the following game. Ferrer fell behind 15-40 but got back to deuce, and then saved a third break point. But Nadal persisted. On his fourth break point, he got back on serve as Ferrer netted a forehand off Nadals relatively short return. That pattern would be repeated many times later in the match. In any case, Nadal made it to 3-3 and seemed to be slowly lifting his game, but Ferrer was unimpressed. Nadal was guilty of three backhand unprovoked mistakes as Ferrer held easily for 4-3. Nadal answered with a love hold of his own for 4-4, but Ferrers timing and execution off the ground were marginally better than Nadals at this juncture.
Ferrer held at 15 for 5-4, and Nadal was plainly apprehensive. He opened his service game at 4-5 with a backhand down the line drop shot into the net, an unusually poor choice of shots under the circumstances. During the first two sets the wind was swirling badly and unpredictably, and Ferrer was more comfortable than Nadal. Ferrer was gauging the wind considerably better than the eight time Roland Garros victor. A remarkably deep down the line backhand return from Ferrer forced Nadal into a backhand error, and it was 0-30. Nadal took the next point but Ferrer advanced to 15-40, coming forward commandingly to put away an overhead. He sealed the set on the next point when Nadal failed to put away a high forehand volley. Ferrer rolled a forehand passing shot crosscourt into the clear, and the set belonged to him: 6-4.
Nadal fully understood that he had to make some definitive tactical alterations in his game to prevent Ferrer from dictating too readily. In the opening game of the second set, Nadal ran around his backhand for forehand returns a couple of times. Ferrer still held at 15 for 1-0, but Nadal had sent a loud message. No longer would he allow Ferrer to pick away at his backhand; the time had come to start applying pressure with his renowned forehand and to alter the pattern of play profoundly. Nadal held at love for 1-1 in the second set, and then connected with a backhand down the line winner at 30-40 in the third game, clipping the sideline with that timely shot.
Nadal had the break for 2-1, and then held for 3-1 at 15. Ferrers return at 40-15 was typically deep but Nadal held his ground on the baseline, took the ball early off the forehand, and coaxed an error from Ferrer by taking it so early. Court positioning won Nadal that point, and that would be the case consistently from that moment on. Serving at 3-2, Nadal trailed 15-40, but Ferrer erred off his increasingly unreliable forehand, and then made another forehand unforced error to allow Nadal back to deuce. Ferrer earned a third break point but Nadal raised his intensity accordingly, connecting with a 194 kilometer first serve that led the way for an aggressive forehand inside out that was unanswerable. Nadal held on gamely from there to reach 4-2. It was a crucial hold.
At 4-3, Nadal was under duress again on his serve at 30-30, but released a spectacular inside out forehand winner from a deep position, making a clutch shot at a pivotal moment. Ferrer got back to deuce but Nadal held on as Ferrer missed on consecutive forehand returns. It was 5-3 for Nadal. At 5-4, he served for the set. He made only one of four first serves in that game, but still held at love, closing out that game stylishly with a service winner to the forehand followed by a clean winnercrosscourt off the backhand.
Now in much safer psychological territory at one set all, Nadal was a new and far more confident man, while Ferrer seemed almost resigned to defeat. Ferrers game deteriorated considerably and his forehand groundstroke went flagrantly awry. Nadal, meanwhile, was almost letter perfect the rest of the way. He broke Ferrer at love to open the third set as Ferrer lost all four points with poor execution off the forehand. Nadal realized how much Ferrer had lost faith in that shot, and he refused to stop sending balls to that suspect side. The strategy was absolutely successful.
Serving at 40-30 in the second game of the third set, Nadals aggressive instincts kicked in beautifully. Ferrers return was deep, but Nadal made a gorgeous pickup off the backhand, directing that shot crosscourt on the rise at an acute angle crosscourt. It was not an outright winner but Ferrer had no chance to make a reply. Nadal had moved to 2-0, and he promptly broke again at 15 for 3-0. He had won 12 of 15 points in those three games, pounding away off the forehand, not allowing Ferrer to find his backhand with enough frequency, controlling the tempo with growing assurance. Ferrer managed to reach deuce on Nadals serve in the fourth game, but Nadal fended him off with excellent defense to earn another game point. Then Nadal ripped another telling inside out forehand that was unmanageable for Ferrer, and it was 4-0.
Nadal had no intention of losing any steam. He was playing not only Ferrer but the clock, clearly recognizing that he needed to be unrelenting if he wanted to end this contest without a postponement until Thursday. Nadal broke Ferrer at 30 for 5-0, moving forward unhesitatingly behind a forehand crosscourt approach, setting himself up for a forehand drop volley winner down the line. He held at 15 for to seal the set 6-0. The hour was nearing 9PM. In that 26 minute set, Nadal had won 25 of 34 points, and he was closing in on the finish line.
Nadal broke Ferrer at 30 to start the fourth set. At break point, Ferrer made another error off the forehand as Nadal looked for every opportunity to hit forehands of his own. The second game of the fourth set was another critical moment in the match. Nadal was down 0-40, but he drove a forehand winner behind Ferrer on that point and never looked back, reaching 2-0 on a run of five consecutive points. Ferrer was now a deeply saddened figure, no longer believing he had a chance, realizing that Nadals outlook had brightened dramatically.
Nadal played every point with a full commitment in the fading light. Meanwhile, the wind had diminished considerably and that was very much to the leftys liking. He broke Ferrer at love for a 3-0, two break lead in the fourth set. Nadal had won no fewer than ten games in a row. He was surging to victory, brimming with intensity and confidence, happy with how he had raised his game, and well aware that Ferrer was collapsing. And yet, Ferrer managed to break Nadal to close the gap to 3-1. In that fourth game, Ferrer found his range briefly off the forehand, only to lose that edge in a hurry. Ferrer drifted to 0-40 in the fifth game, saved two break points for 30-40, but then Nadal sent a forehand crosscourt, daring Ferrer to go down the line off the backhand. Ferrer tried, but missed it wide. Nadal was up 4-1, ahead by two breaks again, unstoppable.
The rest was a formality. Nadal held at 15 for 5-1 and then broke Ferrer at 30. He had prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, 6-1, winning 13 of the last 14 games with a flourish.
Nadal wrapped it up in two hours and 34 minutes, finishing before 9:30. Ferrer made 50 unforced errors over the four sets, 19 more than the increasingly stable Nadal. In the forced error category, Nadal had only 20 while Ferrer was up at 42. Nadal won 68% of his first serve points and Ferrer came in at only 53%. On second serve points, Nadal was up at 56%; Ferrer was down at 42%. Ferrer released 33 winners, 12 more than Nadal. But that number hardly mattered at all. Nadal was nine for 14 on break point opportunities and Ferrer was only 3 for 14. That mattered a lot.
And so Nadal moves on to a semifinal appointment against Andy Murray. Murray has had a good run here in Paris, reaching the penultimate round for the second time. But he was stretched to 12-10 in the fifth set by Philipp Kohlschreiber, and today he was taken into another five set confrontation by Gael Monfils, winning the final set of that encounter 6-0. Murray is a markedly improved clay court player, but it is hard to imagine how he can topple Nadal in a best of five set match on this surface. His only path to victory would be to demolish Nadal in three straight sets, or perhaps get the job done in four relatively fast sets.
But either of those possibilities seems remote. Nadal holds a 14-5 career head to head advantage over Murray. Nadal had a good draw here and breezed through his first four matches. The test he got from Ferrer will not hurt him because the Spaniard passed it with flying colors in the end. The feeling grows that we are headed for another Nadal-Djokovic final found duel at a Grand Slam event. They have met already in six major finals, and the two great players stand even at 3-3. Nadal has been victorious in two of his three U.S. Open final round skirmishes with Djokovic; the Serbian is 1-0 over Nadal in Wimbledon and Australian Open finals. At Roland Garros, Nadal won their only final round clash here two years ago in four sets.
I cant wait for the weekend. The view here is that we just might get another epic between the two best players in the world of tennis.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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