Rafael Nadal’s semifinal win over Juan Martin del Potro at the French Open on Friday was not surprising, but it was, in one specific way, instructive.
For all Nadal’s advantages over Del Potro on clay, the match’s scoreline – 6-4, 6-1, 6-2 – was still jarringly lopsided. Del Potro had been in fine form coming in, and started out the match hitting cracking forehands that knocked Nadal back on his heels. Despite appearing to tweak his hip in the sixth game of the first set, Del Potro felt very much in control, particularly on his serve. He was hanging with Nadal. Making him sweat, even.
Through eight games, the set was tied 4-all, and Nadal was working harder for his holds, facing three break points on his serve, while seeing none on Del Potro’s. In the ninth game, Del Potro worked a double break point, and, after Nadal erased them both, got a look at a third. Nadal wiped out that one, too, and went on to hold. A confluence of factors contributed to the outcome, and a lot of it came down to spectacular shot-making from Nadal (a searing cross-court backhand winner on deuce point stands out). But Del Potro also helped out with some nervy, passive hitting – particularly on game point, which he lost at the net after a pair of unproductive volleys.
So Nadal held, and then, naturally, he broke Del Potro to 15, and the match was extremely over after that. Nadal had looked tentative and vulnerable to start, but over the final two sets, he faced just one break point (which he saved) and won 54 percent of points on return. Del Potro, owner of one of the most fearsome serves in tennis, won less than half of his service points.
The Argentine would’ve been a significant underdog even if he’d managed to win that first set, but letting Nadal up off the mat is an invitation to be trampled underfoot. It’s not just about the tiny margin for error you have against Nadal, it’s about how difficult it is to match his ferocity once he senses he’s been given a lifeline. After escaping the first set, he swelled with energy; he moved a step quicker, hit the ball a bit harder, a bit deeper, a bit meaner.
“That was my chance,” Del Potro later said of that 4-all game.
“But then he made me run a lot, his intensity is too high the whole match, and I couldn’t stay there after the first set.”
Playing with emotion alone is not what makes Nadal unique. At the highest level (or at any level, really), sports are always emotional. What makes Nadal unique is the particular way he harnesses and feeds off of and weaponizes emotion, the way he seeks out and dredges it up from anywhere he can find it, like water from a stone. It’s intimidating enough as a viewer – you don’t watch Nadal in those moments so much as you feel him – let alone as a competitor across the net. To beat Nadal on clay means to capitalize on every opportunity, and stay on top of him, and never let up for a moment.
Sometimes, his opponent will do everything he needs to do, and Nadal, by the grace of the clay-court gods, will be gifted a lifeline anyway. In the quarterfinals, Del Potro’s plucky countryman Diego Schwartzman was tearing the cover off the ball and busting up a wobbly Nadal, going up a set and a break. Then a rainstorm intervened, and by the time the match resumed, Nadal was Nadal again, and Schwartzman was helpless.
Nadal didn’t need divine or meteorological intervention on Friday; all he needed was one little hiccough from Del Potro.
Dominic Thiem will play Nadal in the final, and says he has “a plan.” That plan ought to involve exuding no fear, and never letting Nadal smell blood. Holding off the rain, if and when Thiem manages to get a leg up, would help, too. Do all that, and he might have a chance.