We know pretty much the story of this final: Rafael Nadal has put himself into position to win La Decima. People have been talking about this for awhile, sure a bit last year when he seemed to be finding his confidence before pulling-out of the major mid tournament.
The talk has gotten much louder this year, especially as the tour began its clay pilgrimage to Paris in Monte Carlo back in April. Nadal had already laid the foundation of this year’s run with a terrific start to the season on hard courts with finals appearances in Melbourne and Miami. 2017 Monte Carlo offered confirmation of the Spaniard’s confidence, consolidated his early 2017 form and by winning La Decima there along the gorgeous Mediterranean, the clay horizon seemed to open for the king and his entourage to make their steady and victorious assault on Roland Garros.
Keep in mind, the collapse of Novak and Andy have added to this sunny forecast for Rafa, but we’ve sensed, especially after seeing him demolish his draw these past two weeks in Paris, that even their form wouldn’t have been terribly significant.
Rafa is moving the chains, so to speak.
I want to talk of the bigger picture here for a second.
Putting tomorrow or any match/tournament into perspective for me often involves seeing the bigger picture, how history most likely comes into play here. In the end, we can talk and predict and argue all we want about this and that player, but history, the results of these matches on the court over time tell the real story. There might even be a kind of predetermination going on here (inference, interpretation and argument can clarify these perspectives. People who have only been watching tennis for 10-15 years have an inherent difficulty in reading these tea leaves).
For instance, I could venture to explain Novak’s fall by saying that it’s almost predictable historically, forget about his own history of roller coaster form that dates back to 2008. John McEnroe said, during yesterday’s call, as the booth was discussing Rafa’s dominance, that the two best players of all time are Federer and Rafa. Even that has such a presentistic flaw, but tough to disagree completely when you consider 2017 Fedal.
He then added that Djokovic is probably top 6, “depending upon who you ask.”
Folks, history tells the story much more convincingly than any commentator or fangirl writing on her fanblog or twitter feed.
So, does the big tennis narrative include Rafa winning La Decima in Paris tomorrow? Seems almost obvious, a foregone conclusion given the events that have led up to this final tomorrow. In other words, try to think how history will tell this story of tennis. Federer winning #18 in Melbourne seems pretty germane to Federer’s story. He’s been the most prolific, most enduring great of his major-winning era.
Djokovic has always seemed second tier to Fedal (unless you breakdown the numbers and try to excavate a statistical argument, saying he’s been part of some kind of ATP conspiracy, etc.). The Djokollapse, in other words, works with that narrative.
That’s partly how I make sense of some of these events.
La Decima seems to fit historically with Nadal’s legacy; add to that the way he’s playing, the way he dismissed the Thiem obstacle yesterday and we have ourselves a slam dunk prediction.
His form is simply phenomenal. Early in that match, after each player opened with breaks of serve, one could see the two settling into a match that would put the weight and angles of ground strokes at a premium. If Thiem could find the rhythm to exchange with Nadal, use both the CC and DTL effectively, he could perhaps push Nadal back and establish control of the points and the match.
But this is so much easier said than done, as we know. First of all, Nadal had no trouble hitting with Thiem from the BL although very early in that first set there were a few rallies that showed promise from the young Austrian. His ball-striking is difficult to deal with if he’s between the lines and moving the ball, staying forward and not getting pushed too far back.
As we know with Nadal, a break of serve early in a set can be the end of any hope the opponent may have. I felt like Thiem holding serve there in the first, forcing Nadal to serve it out was a good development for Dominic. He seemed to have his whereabouts, more or less.
But the Spaniard’s clay game is so rich. He has so many ways to devour his opponent. What spelled absolute doom yesterday was watching Thiem, as the match wore-on, down a set, try to hold serve as each point was like he was getting beat-up by an older brother or cousin, almost 10 years older than he. This is what, aside from the skill and technique of clay and Nadal’s mastery of those elements, kills the Nadal clay foe: his unwavering point-by-point desperation. Nadal isn’t taking-off a single point. There is no easy hold against Rafa on clay.
Thiem’s attempt to hit through Nadal on nearly every point got pretty old pretty quick. He’s strong, but needs to harness that strength. He needs to mature.
Nadal has been associated with clay and Roland Garros dominance since 2005. Interestingly, someone pointed-out that Roland Garros is particularly suited for Nadal’s defensive approach because of the size of the court. Look at an aerial of Roland Garros vs. Monte Carlo or Rome. One can see the size difference here. More room has given this clay monster scrambler more space to retrieve, frustrate and find his leverage in these marathon points that weaken his opponents’ resolve and stamina.
Clearly, if Mcshow Tennis is putting money on this match, it would seem very unreasonable not to bet on Nadal here in 3 or 4 sets.
However, let’s discuss the crazy alternative of Wawrinka winning this match.
- First, let’s start with the number of sets. Nadal could very likely win in 3 sets (you are nodding while reading this). Or Stan puts together a little run, wins a set and extends his demise to 4 sets. Could happen. You agree with this, as well.
What if it goes 5 sets? Do you see Nadal winning in 5 sets? This would be getting away from Nadal if it goes 5. Stan then would have won 2 sets, have belief, and then we get into a war of attrition, stamina, fortitude, etc. If this goes 5, all bets are off. Most likely it doesn’t go 5; but if it does, Paris is being renamed “Upset City.” Stamina Wawrinka aka Stanimal aka Stan the Man will have achieved the impossible. Even losing in 5 sets to Nadal would be amazing, especially for us as we would witness one of the true great matches of all time, with so much on the line.
- Stan’s beaten Rafa in a major final. Nadal did have some injury here, but that wasn’t confusing Stan much: he thought it was some of that gamesmanship the Spaniard employs so strategically. Stan wasn’t buying this. Stan is not (I might argue) intimidated by Rafa. Rafa has had trouble with these types of players (Wawrinka, Tsonga, Djokovic, Soderling, etc). The players who more or less stand up to Rafa have seemed to have at least a more fighting chance. Rafa bullies opponents, and I don’t think Stan can be bullied at this point.
- Stan’s form. He’s in zone. Stanimal has arrived. Is this enough to beat Nadal in Paris? Most likely no. But he’s murdering the ball from both wings. What bodes well in addition here is the SF was not peak Stan. He survived that match. He needed that fifth set (and the fourth set TB) to survive. This was not the prettiest match from Stan ala FO and USO finals versus Djokovic. If Stan’s level rises, that’s just more of that heavy clay offense that Nadal hasn’t seen in any other opponent.
And let’s mention the difference between Stan and Thiem, two players with seemingly similar style. Stan is just so much more mature. Obviously. The mental part of the game, especially. Stan will not get flustered like Thiem did. Thiem was dead by the second set yesterday. Stan doesn’t seem to worry about these parts of the match. He is a slow starter. If he loses the first set to Nadal tomorrow, this is not the same, imho. Stan will not get flustered. Remember, his three majors are against Rafa and Djokovic x2 (during Djokovic’s apparent peak).
He will have the ability to moon-ball with Rafa; he has a much more stable BL game than Thiem (this is obvious). If Stan is hitting lines, mashing from both sides, which can describe that Stanimal form, Rafa’s hands are full.
- Lastly, I have to mention the Magnus Norman factor. Norman coached Soderling when the Swede shocked Roland Garros in 2009. He was driving the Stan bus in 2014 when Stan won his first major by beating Rafa in Melbourne.
Who knows what those two are talking about right now, but you have to suspect that there is some optimism in camp Wawrinka.
Obviously, folks, Rafa is a HEAVY favorite tomorrow to secure his second La Decima. He’s earned it, he’s focused and seems really pretty much unplayable right now. Even the historical tennis tea leaves say a Rafa win is happening.
But the enigma of Stan Wawrinka has reared its head once again. You have to think Rafa would rather be playing a malleable Murray.
And that’s another factor: Stan had to withstand some world-class defense yesterday to survive Murray. It’s not like he beat some journeyman; Murray rose to the occasion in Paris.
Hopefully the match is entertaining. Stan going away would not be a surprise. But imagine Stan holding his own. Imagine the boys getting out to a set a piece.
A guy can dream 😉
Enjoy the match!