Greetings tennis junkies,
After watching Rafa Nadal labor through two straight tiebreakers against Italian Andreas Seppi yesterday in Cincinnati, it has become obvious that nobody in the draw needs these matches more than Rafa does.
True, the legs look fine, and Rafa is in pretty good physical condition, but the rust is thick on the young Spaniards game, and if Rafa doesn't get a few more matches under his belt in Cincinnati, he'll likely have his capable hands full in New York when the U.S. Open begins on August 31.
Unlike his arch rival Roger Federer, who seems to be able to summon his magic after long lapses in activity or even after several bad performances, Rafa is an animal who needs far more repetition to recreate his full arsenal of breathtaking shots.
This was apparent yesterday, as Rafa struggled mightily against a player that he would have cast aside as if he was wiping a bead of sweat from his brow about four months ago. It wasn't that Rafa's knees were bothering him. It wasn't that he was out of shape in the oppressive Midwestern August heat. The fact of the matter is that Rafa doesn't have his feel back.
Feel breeds confidence. Lack of feel breeds indecision. Take a look at Rafa hitting his backhand slice, a shot that was coming along so nicely for him several months ago, and you'll see exactly what I'm referring to. Rafa's slice used to bite and slide. He didn't look beautiful hitting it, but the results were deadly. Yesterday, Rafa's slice was fluffy. It hung up in the air and bounced lazily when it hit the hard court. Seppi took notice and pummelled it every chance he got, and as he did, I couldn't help but think of what one of the top-20 players would do to that shot.
Thankfully for Rafa, he's still match tough - he escaped the match by winning two consecutive tiebreakers, and he'll get another chance to regain more of the "feel" that made him so good -and so confident - over the last few years.
"I don't know if I play very well, but I was there all the time, no?" Rafa told the press after the match. "I was fighting every point, and that's the important thing, no? I don't know if it was a very good match for me, but it was very important, because these matches help me a lot to get my best performance and to get physical training too."
Evidently Rafa knows what's at stake here in Cincinnati as well.
"So everything is positive. And, you know, the most positive thing is that I gonna be tomorrow another time on the court. That's important for me continuing to improve."
Clearly, Rafa knows what he needs to do. But the question is whether he can play well enought to continue to win and get the matches that he needs. He's desperate for more reps and he can't afford a loss today against Paul-Henri Mathieu, because it will leave him with too much unfinished business before the U.S. Open begins.
As great as Rafa is, he is trying to accomplish a lot in a very short period of time. The feel that he's demonstrated and put to use over the years was something that took a massive amount of commitment to develop. Judging from his play in Montreal and Cincinnati, Rafa can't simply snap his fingers and play the type of tennis that we're accustomed to seeing him play.
He's a work in progress again, with the key work being work. Rafa needs work today, and he'll need it again tomorrow if he's to have a legitimate shot at contending for a U.S. Open title.
A loss in the next two rounds won't be catastrophic for his career, but I have a feeling it will be catastrophic for early September. For that reason I'll be pulling for Rafa this week in Cincy - each win that he procures will make the U.S. Open that more interesting to watch.