But, above and beyond anything else, this was an immensely gratifying accomplishment for a singularly driven man because he surely did not think he was going to rule in Montreal when the week commenced. Having not played a match since his startling loss to Steve Darcis at Wimbledon on June 24th, Nadal had originally hoped to play a clay court event in Germany before heading out onto the hard courts en route to the U.S. Open. But he had not returned on the clay because his knee was not ready for that kind of a test. So Nadal waited, practiced, and did his best to get ready for the summer hard court campaign. And yet, while his goal is to come out on top in every tournament he plays, Nadal is a fundamentally realistic man. His goals are reasonable, his expectations sensible, his view of himself not inflated in the least.
Nadal would have been delighted with a semifinal showing in Canada, but he simply took it match by match, moment to moment, day to day. The Spaniard cast aside the left-handed Jessie Levine 6-2, 6-0 in his opening match before halting the formidable Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz in a stern encounter. He then took apart qualifier Marinko Matosevic to set up a penultimate round appointment against Novak Djokovic, which turned into the finest match of the year outside of the Grand Slam events. After toppling Djokovic in that blockbuster, the Spaniard took on Milos Raonic in the championship match.
Raonic was on a mission. Reaching the final guaranteed the 22-year-old Canadian a place in the worlds top ten for the first time. The 65 Raonic wanted to become the first man from his nation to secure a Masters 1000 championship. Before his match started against the redoubtable Nadal, Raonic was showered by the eupeptic audience with a pair of standing ovations.
But in Nadal, Raonic was confronting the sports ultimate professional, a player who leaves no stone unturned in pursuit of his highest goals, a man who never walks on court without a well devised gameplan, a masterful and uncompromising competitor who refuses to back down from any challenge. Raonic had survived an arduous week in advancing to the most important final of his career. He had narrowly escaped against the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy before prevailing 6-3, 4-6, 7-5. After handling the Russian Mikhail Youzhny in straight sets, he got by Juan Martin Del Potro 7-5, 6-4 in the round of 16. In the quarterfinals, Raonic prevailed in another hotly contested three set collision with the ever enigmatic Ernest Gulbis. Finally, Raonic toppled countryman Vasek Pospisil in a painfully tense match that went to a final set tie-break. To be sure, Raonic had performed well at the right times for his best showing in months, but he had hardly been convincing.
And yet, he commenced his final round duel with Nadal with a stirring display of power, audacity and panache. As a player renowned for owning one of the games most daunting serves, Raonic demonstrated to his celebrated adversary that he was determined to exploit that high velocity weapon. It was his one and only hope of surpassing Nadal; only with a stupendous serving performance could Raonic possibly fashion a victory. From the backcourt, Nadal was always going to punch holes in the Canadians game, exploiting the weaker backhand wing of Raonic with a barrage of crosscourt forehands, preventing Raonic from gaining enough opportunities to dictate the flow of the match with his fearsome inside-out forehand. Raonic could come through only with brute force, and a first serve percentage high in the sixties.
That never happened. But for one brief moment at the outset, Raonic looked commanding on his delivery, although Nadal remained unflappable even when under assault. In the opening game of the contest, Raonic released a scorching 129 MPH first serve out wide that Nadal could not answer. After Nadal passed him off the backhand for 15-15, Raonic cracked an inside-out forehand winner off Nadals backhand return. At 30-15, he thundered a 149 MPH ace out wide in the Ad Court, and then aced the Spaniard down the T at a mere 147 MPH. He had connected with four out of five first serves, holding at 15, raising the morale of the home fans, giving them a false sense of security.
Nadal simply went to work methodically, unrelentingly and purposefully. He reached 30-0 in the second game as Raonic took the kinds of risks off the ground that were necessary yet inevitably unsuccessful. Raonic missed a backhand down the line into the net, and was off the mark with an inside-out forehand wide. Nadal kicked a first serve into his opponents body to elicit an errant backhand return, and then served an ace to hold at love. It was 1-1. Nadal was entirely comfortable. That was bad news for Milos Raonic. At 30-30 in the third game, Raonic tried to catch the Spaniard off guard, serving-and-volleying, swinging his delivery wide to the backhand. Nadal adjusted easily, lacing a return at Raonics feet that the Canadian could not cope with on the half volley. Nadal then made a terrific return off a big first serve and followed up with a trademark inside-out forehand that drew an error from Raonic.
The favorite was off and running, up a break at 2-1, and unstoppable. He held at 15 for 3-1, reaching 40-15 by curling a forehand down the line into the corner for a winner, closing out that game with a sliced backhand deep down the line that was unmanageable for the Canadian as he ran around his backhand to play a forehand. In the fifth game, Raonic surged into a 40-0 lead with an ace, but proceeded to miss five consecutive first serves as a resolute Nadal came back to break him. Nadal took control off his forehand to work his way back into that game. At break point, Nadal rolled a backhand pass crosscourt and kept it low. Raonic was coaxed into a forehand volley mistake.
Nadal was gathering steam, and Raonic clearly sensed that he was in a serious and perhaps inescapable bind. Nadal held at love for 5-1, profiting from three errant returns from the Canadian. Raonic has long been vulnerable on the return of serve, but Nadal was exacerbating that weakness with the way he was moving his serve around, going into the body skillfully, swinging it out wide in the Ad Court, keeping his foe at bay constantly. Although Raonic held on easily for 2-5, he had no clue how to interrupt Nadals rhythm on serve. The Spaniard held at love in the eighth game to close out the opening set declaratively. In four service games, Nadal had won 16 of 17 points. He was utterly composed while Raonic was a fellow in deep disarray.
The pattern continued on both sides of the net. In the opening game of the second set, Raonic served a double fault long at 30-15, and he did the same thing at 30-40. Nadal held at 15 for 2-0, buoyed by three more missed returns from the discombobulated Canadian. Serving at 0-30 in the third game, Raonic was on the verge of getting blown irrevocably out of the match. But Nadal tightened up for the first and only time in the match and missed his chance. He missed a forehand return off a first serve, made a forehand unforced error, netted a running forehand passing shot, and then netted another passing shot off a drop volley from Raonic. The Canadian had collected four points in a row to hold on for 1-2, offering himself a glimmer of hope.
Nadal trailed 0-40 in the fifth game. Raonic had not yet advanced to break point on his opponents serve, and would not get there again. Just before Nadal served at 0-40, with the crowd worked up into a frenzy by Raonics apparent opportunity, the umpire gave the Spaniard a time warning. Nadal was clearly aggravated, and proceeded to ace Raonic out wide for 15-40. Raonic missed an inside-out forehand, and then Nadal made another sparkling backhand pass crosscourt for deuce. Raonic missed flagrantly with a backhand down the line, and Nadal served another ace wide to the backhand. On that concentrated run of five consecutive points, Nadal travelled to 3-1, and never looked back.
Raonic served a good game to hold for 2-3, but Nadal was unimpressed, holding at 15 in the sixth game. Raonic double faulted to fall behind 15-30 at 2-4. Nadal then opened up the court on the following point, driving a backhand crosscourt to force Raonic into a running forehand error. At 15-40, Nadal made one of his countless excellent returns off a first serve, setting up a chance to drive an inside-out forehand that Raonic was too much for Raonic. Nadal had moved to 5-2, and he held at 15 to close out the account with total assurance. Nadal had crafted a 6-2, 6-2 victory. His return of serve was the leading feature of his game. He had begun returning more aggressively against Janowicz, and he maintained that assertiveness all the way through the tournament, often hugging the baseline and taking the ball exceptionally early. But he was especially impressive on the return against Raonic, essentially taking away the Canadians primary strength.
Nadal lifted his match record for a stellar 2013 campaign to 48-3 overall, and 10-0 on hard courts. He put in 69% of his first serves while a pressing Raonic finished at only 50%, winning only 61% of his first serve points. Nadal masterfully outplayed his rival across the board. It was a remarkable performance from a great player who knows how to peak in the latter rounds of the biggest tournaments. Raonic, meanwhile, was exposed in many ways. He had been fortunate all week to keep winning, but when he had absolutely nothing to lose against a towering champion who was heavily favored to beat him, Raonic was found wanting in every way. He deserves his place among the top ten in the world, but ascending into the top five will be a tall order for a player who has a of wrinkles left to iron out in his game.
The critical moment for Nadal in Montreal was his semifinal contest with Novak Djokovic, the defending champion, the No. 1 seed, the universally acclaimed best hard court player in the world. Both players knew the importance of this meeting. Nadal took a 20-15 career lead over Djokovic into this battle. Heading into 2011, Nadal had captured 16 of 23 duels with Djokovic across their careers, but then the Serbian humbled the Spaniard time and again in 2011, toppling Nadal six times in a row that season, then adding a seventh straight victory over his revered rival in the epic Australian Open final of 2012.
Djokovic was within striking distance of Nadal, trailing only 16-14 in the rivalry. But since then, Nadal had won four of five contests with Djokovic, all of them on clay, most notably their recent French Open classic semifinal at Roland Garros won by Nadal 9-7 in the fifth set. But they had not played each other away from the clay for more than a year-and-a-half. Djokovic was appearing in his first tournament since losing to Andy Murray in the Wimbledon final. Surprisingly, he has not won a tournament since he upended Nadal at Monte Carlo back in April.
Be that as it may, Djokovic is always most a home on hard courts. Many authorities believed he would have the edge against Nadal on that surface. But Nadal came out firing away relentlessly, cracking the forehand emphatically, driving his two-hander with more pace than usual, flattening it out whenever possible, taking it up the line opportunistically. Djokovic, meanwhile, was unsettled, serving a couple of double faults in the opening game, falling behind 3-1 as Nadal dictated more often than not. The crucial factor was that Djokovic was clearly surprised and even unnerved by Nadals second serve returns coming back so swiftly.
Nadal was superb in that opening set. He advanced to 4-2 with a 123 MPH ace down the T at 40-30. With Djokovic leading 40-30 in the seventh game, Nadal turned up the volume on his returns. He secured the next two points by rushing Djokovic into mistakes. Then Djokovic served his fifth double fault of the set at break point down. Nadal had a cushion, moving to 5-2 with two breaks in hand. But Djokovic came vibrantly alive. With Nadal serving at 30-40 in the eighth game, Djokovic laced an immaculate two-hander up the line, setting up a sizzling inside-out forehand winner. In holding at 30 for 4-5, Djokovic released a pair of aces and a service winner. He had clearly found his range.
Nadal, however, buckled down with raised intensity as he served for the set a second time at 5-4. He reached 40-15, and sealed the set by unleashing a deadly accurate forehand inside-in that enabled him to charge in and crack an overhead that Djokovic found unanswerable. Nadal deservedly had the set in hand, but Djokovic had his bearings. Now both men were playing top of the line tennis. They put on a dazzling show the rest of the way. The set stayed on serve through seven high quality games in the second set before Djokovic made his move opportunistically. Nadal was serving at 3-4, 40-0 when he missed a forehand inside-out wide. Djokovic forced him into consecutive baseline errors to reach deuce, and then the Serbians forehand had too much on it for Nadal to handle off the backhand. The Spaniard missed a backhand long narrowly, and Djokovic had improbably collected five clutch points in a row to grab a 5-3 lead.
Djokovic commenced the following game with a pair of aces for 30-0, but Nadal took the next three points. It was break point for the Spaniard, but he went for a shade too much off the forehand and missed long. Djokovic held on gamely from there. The set belonged to him, 6-3. Having won two crucial games in a row that could just as easily have gone to Nadal, the Serbian seemed to be increasingly confident.
But Nadal did not despair, not even in the least. Locked at deuce in the opening game of the final set, he sliced a first serve down the T that Djokovic missed on the stretch backhand return. Nadal followed with an ace down the T to hold on for 1-0. Both players held easily up until 2-2. The standard of play was astounding. Neither man was yielding in any way. In the fifth game, however, Nadal was down 0-30, but he raised his game decidedly at this crucial moment, releasing a backhand, semi-half volley drop shot winner before shifting brilliantly from defense to offense and then thumping an inside-out forehand winner that was set up by a magnificent backhand down the line. At 30-30, Nadal hit a backhand drop shot down the line that Djokovic answered with another drop shot. Nadal moved in alertly and realized he had no good opening to drive the ball past Djokovic. Instead, he drove the ball right at him, and his backhand struck Djokovic around his chin.
Nadal raised his hand in a genuinely apologetic gesture. Djokovic looked at him briefly but then turned away, seemingly in disgust. Nadal put his hands out as if to say, What more can I do? I am trying to say I am sorry. Djokovic is exemplary these days as a sportsman, but this an unusual display of petulance. Nadal then aced Djokovic down the T to hold for 3-2 on a run of four consecutive points. Djokovic held easily for 3-3, but Nadal held at 30 for 4-3. Now Djokovic wandered into dangerous territory. He served a seventh double fault to fall behind 0-30 in the eighth game, yet followed with an ace for 15-30. But Nadal drew Djokovic in on his terms and passed him cleanly off the backhand crosscourt.
It was double break point for Nadal. Winning one of the next two points would have enabled him to serve for the match. Djokovic had other notions. He used a well placed first serve to create an avenue for a backhand winner down the line. On the second break point, Nadal raced across the court for a nearly impossible forehand passing shot from ten feet behind the baseline, barely missing it. Djokovic held on for 4-4. In the ninth game, Nadal stood precariously at 15-30. He came through handsomely, playing an overhead on the bounce unhesitatingly. He saw that Djokovics reply was tame and moved forward with alacrity to put away a forehand volley crisply. Nadal aced Djokovic down the T for 40-30, and then sliced a first serve into the body that Djokovic could not handle off the forehand.
It was 5-4 for the Spaniard. Djokovic was unflustered, holding at 15 for 5-5. Nadal was four for four on first serves in the eleventh game, serving an ace at 125 MPH down the T for 30-0. Djokovic got only one return back into play in that stellar game from the Spaniard. But, serving at 5-6, Djokovic was equal to the task. He made all four first serves and released one ace. Nadal was unable to get any of his returns back into play. Both men had held steadfastly all through the third, and the rallies they contested were nothing short of stupendous. It would all be settled in a final set tie-break. Under similar circumstances in the final of Miami two years ago, Djokovic had been the victor under the harsh light of pressure.
This time around, Nadal was the man who rose majestically to the occasion. He took the first point of the tie-break with assertiveness, making a delayed approach off the forehand and closing in tight for a forehand volley winner. Nadal gained control of the second point, pounding an inside-out forehand and catching Djokovic off balance. The Serbian awkwardly sliced a forehand crosscourt wide. Nadal got the double mini-break for 3-0 with more outright aggression, coaxing Djokovic into another forehand mistake. A heavy kicking second serve from Nadal was too much for Djokovic on the return, and Nadal moved to 4-0. He advanced to 5-0 by slicing a backhand softly down the line, luring Djokovic into a forehand inside-in error. An unprovoked forehand error from Djokovic made it 6-0 for the Spaniard, but a characteristically bold Djokovic refused to fold, producing back to back winners on the next two points. But on his third match point, Nadal came through as Djokovic erred once more on a routine crosscourt forehand. Nadal carved out a 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) triumph. Outside of the four majors, this was the single best tennis match of 2013. Once more, these two stalwarts spoiled us with one of their gems of a showdown. The only regrettable thing about Montreal was that Nadal and Djokovic met in a semifinal, as was the case in Roland Garros. Their previous eleven skirmishes had all been finals, and that is the way it should be.
Meanwhile, Nadals clash with Janowicz was among the most compelling of the week. Nadal had an opening with the 68, 22-year-old from Poland serving at 4-5, 15-40. Janowicz went for a daring second serve down the T that was called in, provoking a netted forehand return from Nadal. Nadal should have challenged that exceedingly close call, but did not. Janowicz saved two more set points in that game, held on, broke Nadal for 6-5, but then double faulted at 15-15 in the following game. At 30-30, he overanxiously jumped at an overhead and missed it. Nadal broke back to force a tie-break. Janowicz went ahead 5-2 in that sequence and he walloped a ferocious return down the middle. Nadal flicked it back and later took control of the point.
Nadal took four points in a row to reach set point on his own serve at 6-5. Janowicz had just double faulted to hand the Spaniard that opportunity. But then Janowicz was incredibly fortunate as his backhand down the line fell over for a net cord winner. Nadal did not panic. He kicked a first serve to the erratic forehand side of his opponent, who missed the return. Serving at 6-7, Janowicz went to his trusted backhand drop shot, which had largely worked well throughout the set. He seldom misses it and his touch on the drop shot off both sides is excellent. But Nadal read this one, scampering in, chipping his backhand down the line and forcing Janowicz to lift hit shot up. Nadal leaped for a backhand overhead that he snapped at the feet of his opponent. Janowicz was trapped. Nadal had the set, but Janowicz raced to a 3-0 lead in the second set, with a break point for 4-0. Nadal wisely served down the T to draw an error from Janowicz. He held on and broke back in the following game as Janowicz double faulted twice.
Nadal broke again for 5-4 as Janowicz served his ninth double fault for 15-40 in that game. Nadal completed a complicated 7-6 (6), 6-4 victory over a player who will soon join Raonic among the top ten in the world.
Raonic, of course, lived dangerously all week long, from the time he took on Chardy. Most of what happened to him over the course of the week was positive; to reach his first Masters 1000 tournament final was a milestone. But he did find himself embroiled in a controversy that no one could have envisioned. Facing Juan Martin Del Potro in the round of 16, Raonic gained the upper hand in the match as a fatigued and ailing Del Potro struggled in vain to reach the top level of his game after winning the tournament in Washington the previous week. Raonic won the opening set from Del Potro 7-5, but Del Potro was up a break at 4-3 in the second set, serving at deuce. Raonic came forward to play an inside-out forehand, going behind the Argentine for a winner.
But the Canadian touched the bottom of the net with his left foot an instant after hitting that shot. Television replays confirmed that his shot had not bounced twice on the other side of the net, which should have cost him the point. Umpire Mohamed Lahyaniwidely acknowledged as one of the sports premier officialstracked both players with his eyes but did not catch the infraction. He gave the point to Raonic, much to the chagrin of Del Potro, who looked at a replay on a big screen above the court.
Lahyani realized that he had made a rare mistake but appropriately stuck to his decision, which is what any good umpire must do. Raonic then broke Del Potro and ran out the match, taking nine more points in a row after the incident, winning 75, 6-4. Raonic was subjected to some severe criticism from the commentators and the twitter world; many believed he should have felt obligated to tell umpire Lahyani that the controversial point should have gone to Del Potro. In my view, the critics were asking too much of Raonic. How many players would have given away a point at such a crucial juncture in a match? The answer is simple: very few. If the roles had been reversed, I have no doubt that Del Potro would have acted precisely the way Raonic did. He would have left it up to the authority of the umpire.
Raonic said later, I was fortunate that that the line judge didnt see it. Its a lucky thing for me, unlucky for him. [It is] something that can go both ways. Its sort of the exact same thing as having no challenges left and you get a bad line call. Its like a bad luck thing. It was hard to sort of be able to take this point on such a big point.
Asked if he should have called it against himself, Raonic said, Its a big point. I dont know. If you can put somebody in the situation being down breakpoint, same thing happens: do you call it on yourself?
Looking to clarify the entire situation, I spoke by telephone with Lars Graff, currently Senior Manager [of] Officiating Administration for the ATP World Tour, formerly one of the games greatest umpires. Graff said, It is very unusual that a player will tell the chair umpire that he touched the net. You have to let the chair umpire make the call because there could be situations where it is very questionable: did the player touch the net before the ball was dead, before it bounced twice, or not? There can be situations in a match where a ball is good but it is called out and the player doesnt say anything. A guy can make a return of a serve that has touched the net and he can hear it, but he hits the return for a winner and he isnt going to tell the umpire it was a let.
Graff adds, There are times when guys are running to get to drop shots and it is not up. Sometimes the umpire doesnt see that it is not up because the player hits his racket on the ground at the same time as he gets the ball over the net. The player is so focused on the ball that he is not sure if it is not up or not. So not up is another call that can be controversial but very few times have I seen a player saying to an umpire, That was not up, sorry. They let the umpire make the call.
Should the ATP World Tour consider a replay systemseparate from Hawkeyeto review rulings that are similar to what happened in the Raonic-Del Potro match? Graff responds, We could look at that. In ice hockey in Sweden, when there is a goal and the referee doesnt see it, the referee can call a supervisor who sits up in a control room and reviews it. It would be possible in tennis but it would take some changes in the rule structure. We would need to have a supervisor sitting watching the match and he could not miss one point because if you are not there, then you cannot make a judgment. It is an interesting situation but we shouldnt overreact because it happened once.
In any event, Raonic was fortunately able to move past that moment and make his way into the final. After the Del Potro win, Raonic played a fine opening set tie-break against Gulbis but then dropped his serve to start the second set and never really recovered. In the third set, Raonic was up 3-1 but Gulbis got back on serve. It went right down to the wire. Gulbis served at 4-5 and had 40-15 before Raonic broke him to close out the match 7-6, 4-6 6-4. That was a good win over an in form player. Gulbis had knocked out Wimbledon champion Andy Murray 6-4, 6-3. His forehand held up remarkably well in that match.
Serving at 4-5 in the first set, Murray double faulted the first point away, fell behind 0-40 and was broken at 15. The two players traded breaks in the second set but Gulbis ultimately took control with his more penetrating ground game and superior serving. He had never beaten Murray before, but he was primed for this match while Murray was not even close to his physical or emotional peak.
Meanwhile, the surprising Pospisil was the player of the week in many ways. He somehow turned back John Isner in the second round. The Canadian wildcard was down a set and 4-2 in the second set tie-break. He pulled out that set with some searing returns but then was down a break, trailing 4-2 in the third. Once more, he struck back forcefully but Isner led 4-2 in the final set tie-break before losing five points in a row. Pospisils returns at the end of that sequence were astounding. He made a couple of brilliant returns off first serves that caught Isner thoroughly off guard.
Pospisil later ousted Tomas Berdych and went all the way to the semifinals. It was a match marred by too much apprehension on both sides of the net. Raonic was terribly nervous because he could not afford to lose a match of this importance to a far less accomplished countryman. Pospisil was uptight because he realized how uneasy Raonic was. Pospisil missed a cluster of routine forehands but Raonic was too often getting in his own way. Raonic took the first set on one break, played an abysmal second set, and then both players battled their way tenuously into a final set tie-break.
It was almost too painful to watch a match that was not worthy of a Masters 1000 tournament semifinal. In the final set tie-break, Raonic was so crippled with tension at times that he was awfully fortunate to get the job done. Raonic was serving at 3-0, but double faulted and netted a backhand pass to make it 3-2. Pospisil rallied to 3-3 before Raonic moved out in front again. But, serving at 5-3, Raonic hit a second serve at 70 MPH and paid the price, losing the point. He finally prevailed 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (4), but his performance was dismal in many ways.
As for Nadal, the world is at his feet again in many ways. Winning this tournament gives him an enormous boost heading into the U.S. Open, regardless of what happens this week in Cincinnati. The key for him will be staying healthy. If he is even remotely worried about his knee, he should pull out of that tournament at any stage and save himself for the larger task ahead in New York. The Spaniard has a very good chance now of finishing the year at No. 1 in the world, which would be an astonishing achievement when you consider that he missed the Australian Open and bowed out in the opening round of Wimbledon. Nonetheless, he has moved up to No. 3 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, which tracks a player over a 52 week period. In the ATP Race for London that counts only points earned in 2013, Nadal has opened up a substantial lead over Djokovic for the No. 1 spot. He has garnered 8010 points while Djokovic has collected only 6590. Djokovic has won only three tournaments in 2013, and will need to win a bunch more to move past the Spaniard.
After the recuperative period following Wimbledon, Nadal has moved back into the forefront of the game. Considering the excellent work he did in Canadacoupled with his exploits at Indian Wells earlier in the yearhe has no reason to doubt himself on hard courts. In fact, he has never looked better on that surface than he did last week, particularly down the stretch. His propensity to alter his game to suit the surface and the situation probably surpasses any of his rivals. He wins more matches with the strength of his mind and the scope of his willpower than any player I have ever witnessed over the last fifty years. The games most arresting player is no one other than Rafael Nadal. When he is in thick of things and playing his brand of tennis, the game is immeasurably enriched.
<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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